What Everyone Should Know About Global Pollution


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The International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report on carbon dioxide emissions for 2014 this week, and it’s some of the best news we’ve gotten in almost 40 years in terms of the connection between the economy and emissions. It’s not particularly positive news in terms of how high emissions rates are, but it does show a promising trend.

This gives me even more hope that humankind will be able to work together to combat climate change, the most important threat facing us today,” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol, who will soon be taking the position of Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven.

Where is the emission rate at?

For 2014, the global emission rate for carbon dioxide was at 32.3 billion tonnes. Compared to 2013, this is not a substantial improvement; in fact, it’s not an improvement at all. It’s simply proof that emissions haven’t gotten worse but have remained at a flat rate for the year. Still, across the 40 years that the IEA has been conducting its data collection, there have only been three occasions in which emission rates either fell or didn’t rise.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Why this is good news: Economic trends

While on its face this may not seem like particularly positive piece of news, it’s significant not because of the emission rate, but because of other global trends in conjunction with that flat rate. One of the major concerns with curbing emission rates is that it will have an adverse effect on development and the economies of nations already struggling to improve conditions within their borders. In the past, decreases in emissions came alongside economic downturn, suggesting that the two might go hand in hand and that cuts could not avoid economic detriment of some sort. The first was in 1991, during the fall of the Soviet Union, and the second in 2008 during the recession. This year acts as a counterargument to that, and one that will be useful in considering future plans for emission reduction, according to Birol.

“This is both a very welcome surprise and a significant one. It provides much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a global climate deal in Paris in December,” he said. “For the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth.”

Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

Why this is good news: China

One of the biggest concerns listed by the United States — which has been criticized for failing to commit to reductions to the extent other countries believe it should — is that countries still developing and increasing their industrial outputs and business structures, like China, would grow to be much larger emitters with time. That appears not to be the case over this last year though, with China’s economy growing by 7%, but its energy emissions dropping 1%, according to Vox, which does caution that China’s emissions data “is notoriously unreliable.”

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Renewable energy across the globe

According to the Renewable 2014 Global Status Report on renewable energy globally, the power sector saw an 8% increase in renewable energy growth in 2012, with hydropower up by 4%, and solar PV power growing nearly 55% annually over a five-year period, and wind power almost matching that. The report notes that the countries leading with their capacity for renewable energy sources include China, the U.S., Brazil, Canada, and Germany. It comes as little surprise that renewable energy would help not only to offset cuts in emissions, but to help economic growth by creating jobs and businesses built around this new industry.


Why we shouldn’t be too impressed

Even with all of this positive news, it doesn’t change the fact that, indeed, a flat rate of change isn’t all that we need to be seeing. Reduction in emissions is going to be of great importance in controlling and mitigating the negative effects of climate change and pollution — not just global warming, but the other negative side effects of high emissions, like COPD and respiratory problems in cities. As the graph from Vox, shown above, demonstrates, emission rates have been generally climbing. This isn’t surprising or against expectation; there are many countries that are only just now developing energy industries, and despite the effort to make renewable technology available, that doesn’t mean growth in pollution isn’t to be expected. However, there is an understandable critique to be made about just how good the news is at present; instead, it’s more a seed for future improvement that we can build on. It proves the effectiveness of certain policy and the potential for the future.

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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