By Gerard Wynn
LONDON May 3 Trends in global economic growth
and rising CO2 emissions rule out optimism that climate targets
can be met, even while the world gets to grip with energy
The continuing financial crisis and record high oil prices
in 2008 haven't driven a low-carbon revolution which green
lobbyists and agencies including the United Nations urged three
In fact, the opposite seems to be happening.
The world may have found a sticking plaster, at least, to
peak oil with rising production of offshore crude, onshore tight
oil, shale gas and tar sands, but increased output of such
fossil fuels conflicts with the goal of limiting climate change.
Renewable energy grew faster in percent consumption than any
other energy source in 2010, but only from a lower base: in
absolute terms, growth was dwarfed ten-fold each by coal and
natural gas, and five-fold by oil, show data from the energy
One way to consider a trend in cleaning up global economic
growth is through the ratio of CO2 emissions to global GDP,
which should fall over time as economies become more efficient.
But a long-run global decline in that so-called "carbon
intensity" has slowed since 2007 across almost all regions -
including the European Union, North America, OECD countries,
non-OECD and globally.
Only China is continuing to drive faster CO2 cuts per unit
of output, driven by ambitious Beijing targets.
That slowing of the global trend is also evident across
decades, with carbon intensity falling more slowly from
2000-2010 than 1990-2000.
That's grim for a globally agreed target to limit more
dangerous global warming, which should see global CO2 output
peak by 2020 at the latest and start falling thereafter to keep
less predictable climate change in check.
Carbon intensity falls over time as the higher value-added,
less carbon-emitting service economy grabs an ever bigger share
of world GDP from polluting heavy industry.
The question is: when will it fall to levels which cause
global CO2 emissions to stop rising?
As it turns out, no time soon.
There's little prospect of a peak, and then falls, in CO2
output short of something of an economic miracle, or disaster.
Global CO2 emissions would stop rising when carbon intensity
falls at the same rate as GDP grows.
The International Monetary Fund forecasts GDP growth through
2017 of around 4 percent annually or more.
There's no precedent for such a decline in carbon intensity
outside China in the 1990s, when the country was shutting
smaller coal plants under an efficiency programme which cleaned
up easy wins, and saw carbon intensity fall by an annual average
of 5.8 percent.
China's carbon intensity fell by just 1.7 percent annually
in the next decade, show World Bank GDP data accounting for
purchasing power parity and removing the effects of inflation.
Beyond 2017 we can assume a calmer, long-run rate of GDP
growth of 3.5 percent.
Unfortunately, there is no precedent for such declines in
global carbon intensity either.
The Chinese experience in the 1990s and beyond appears to
mirror a broader picture where the world's ability to clean up
is diminishing, even as agreed climate goals require the
That puts into focus a global energy strategy, which appears
all but absent in a programme to grab whatever's out there,
based primarily on cost where fossil fuels win in the short-term
absent a global carbon price, and because the cost of green
energy is almost all in upfront capital.
The International Energy Agency last year reinforced the
need for a more coherent strategy, in its set-piece annual
report, estimating that without a rapid roll-out of low carbon
alternatives by 2017 the world's energy infrastructure would
already lock in all "permissible" CO2 emissions to 2035.
That means any additional energy generation would have to be
zero carbon, or replace but not add to existing, emitting
infrastructure: a tall order.