Emissions Expected to Grow Only 1% in 2022

This is a trend going in the right direction, but we should look more carefully at the reasons behind it.

Wind turbines
The Beauty of Wind Turbines.

Photographie Joan Sullivan

In a surprising turn of events, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the worldwide growth in carbon dioxide emissions this year will be less than 1%.

“The global energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a scramble by many countries to use other energy sources to replace the natural gas supplies that Russia has withheld from the market. The encouraging news is that solar and wind are filling much of the gap, with the uptick in coal appearing to be relatively small and temporary,” said IEA executive director Fatih Birol.

“This means that CO2 emissions are growing far less quickly this year than some people feared—and that policy actions by governments are driving real structural changes in the energy economy. Those changes are set to accelerate thanks to the major clean energy policy plans that have advanced around the world in recent months.”

In 2020, Carbon Emissions Were Way Down

Parked airplanes during the pandemic in 2020
Parked airplanes during the pandemic in 2020.

 Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Readers may remember that emissions declined by 7% in 2020, the first year of the pandemic when planes were grounded and people stopped driving. We asked in early 2021: "Covid-19 Reduced Emissions; Can We Keep Them Down?" We quoted a report that said we should learn from this by deploying electric vehicles, promoting walking and cycling, keeping remote work, and encouraging a return to public transit. The report saw the opportunity:

"Year 2021 could mark the beginning of a new phase in tackling climate change... The task of sustaining decreases in global emissions of the order of billion tonnes of CO2 per year while supporting economic recovery and human development, and improved health, equity and well-being, lies in current and future actions." 

In 2021, Carbon Emissions Were Way Up

Coal plant in Baotou, China
Coal plant in Baotou, China, for 2021.

Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images

Of course, that didn't happen; carbon emissions returned with a bang and global climate emissions in 2021 were the highest in history. The IEA reported that "the increase in global CO2 emissions of over 2 billion tonnes was the largest in history in absolute terms, more than offsetting the previous year’s pandemic-induced decline." They noted that much of it was due to spikes in natural gas prices and more coal being burned.

If we are going to stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, we have to do that 7% reduction, which we had in 2020, every year between now and 2030. I wrote earlier this year, "In March of 2022, we see that we are right back to where we were before. I suspect that when we see the numbers a year from now, with gas supplies disrupted by Russia's war and everyone shoveling coal as fast as they can, we will have likely blown 1.5 degrees C, we may have blown 2, and we will be praying for 3. Wars run on fossil fuels."

In 2022, Carbon Emissions Are What?

Annual change in emissions

International Energy Agency

I was wrong about about that; we are not back to 2021 levels. So why are the IEA numbers so good in October? Why do we have such a small rise? The IEA credits the rise in clean energy.

"The rise in global CO2 emissions this year would be much larger—more than tripling to reach close to 1 billion tonnes—were it not for the major deployments of renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles (EVs) around the world. Even though the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has propped up global coal demand in 2022 by making natural gas far more expensive, the relatively small increase in coal emissions has been considerably outweighed by the expansion of renewables."

I am not so sure that the IEA is correct about what is happening here, and instead suggest that they follow the money, those green dots on the graph that chart the growth in Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. When I looked at the 2021 figures earlier this year, I noted:

The increase of 6% is also just about exactly the same as the increase in global economic output of 5.9%, proving once again that Vaclav Smil is right—that "every economic activity is fundamentally nothing but a conversion of one kind of energy to another, and monies are just a convenient (and often rather unrepresentative) proxy for valuing the energy flows."
Growth in GDP

Deloitte Insights

Indeed, the carbon emissions appear to track the changes in GDP. This chart is for the U.S., but I suspect the world economy chart is even scarier. The Deloitte forecast, where the graph comes from, is not sure if we are heading into a slow period, an inflationary spiral, or a recession.

There are many who say that the economy and emissions have decoupled and that one can have economic growth while reducing emissions. Time Magazine even pointed to the U.K., noting that a "cleaner energy mix—combined with a transition to a service-based economy from a carbon-intensive manufacturing one—has helped drive the U.K.’s emissions down by 44% since 1971 and by 38% since 1990." One only has to read the news right now to see how well that has worked out for them.

 As the economist and physicist Robert Ayres noted, the economy is, by definition, about energy consumption: “The economic system is essentially a system for extracting, processing and transforming energy as resources into energy embodied in products and services.” The economy is energy consumption.

As the economic system tanks, so do emissions. I am usually the optimist, but I don't think the IEA is reading the numbers or the room.