Clean power sends CO2 growth back to Great Depression-era levels

Boom in wind and solar helping to contain global carbon emissions – but they are still rising

The use of renewable energy sources, such as wind power, is helping to cut the world's CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Reuters
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The world’s carbon dioxide emissions are rising at their slowest rate since the Great Depression thanks to a boom in clean energy, new figures show.

Solar and wind power, the electric car market and the sales of equipment to make hydrogen all recorded formidable growth last year.

The use of clean technology avoided vast quantities of CO2 being produced, says the International Energy Agency.

Unlike in the 1930s, the emissions slowdown is not down to a dire world economy, which grew in the past 10 years despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

This means that emissions are "undergoing a structural slowdown" even if economic activity grows, said an IEA report.

However, it does mean emissions are still going up. They would need to not just slow, but fall drastically by 2050 if the world is to achieve its climate goals.

Almost 200 countries agreed to renew that effort at last year's Cop28 summit in the UAE, making a series of pledges to switch to clean power.

The aim is to stop interfering with the atmosphere before global warming gets past 1.5°C, which scientists say would prevent the worst effects of climate change.

One aim agreed at Cop28 was to treble renewable energy capacity – the total amount that all the world's wind turbines, solar panels and so on could theoretically produce – by 2030.

In 2023, solar power capacity climbed 85 per cent while wind power rose 60 per cent. The solar growth was mainly driven by China, where it more than doubled.

Wind power deployment has avoided about 830 million tonnes of CO2 being produced since 2019, more than the annual emissions of Germany, according to the IEA's figures.

There was a rise of 360 per cent in the use of electrolysers, which are used to make hydrogen, albeit from a very low base.

Electric car sales were up by 35 per cent, with eye-catching rises in China and the US. The small Indian market is also growing.

However, electric models still only account for 3 per cent of cars on the road, meaning the amount of CO2 saved so far is fairly modest.

Some trends are heading in the opposite direction. Heat pump sales were down, and there was a drop in new capacity for nuclear power, which was embraced as a low-carbon energy source at Cop28. Energy efficiency improvements stagnated.

However, clean energy deployment overall "scaled new heights in 2023" and is "at the heart" of the slowdown in emissions, the IEA's report said.

In the decade to 2023, global emissions grew by just 0.5 per cent a year – the slowest rate since the Great Depression, it said.

Previous slowdowns came amid the energy shocks of the 1970s and the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1989. The rise of China helped to accelerate emissions again in the 2000s.

Although the freak circumstances of Covid-19 did cause a one-off slump in emissions, they soon rebounded, and this was not the only reason for the 2013 to 2023 slowdown, the report said.

"When the last 10 years are put in a broader historical context, a comparably slow rate of CO2 emissions growth only occurred in the extremely disruptive decades of World War I and the Great Depression," it said.

"Global CO2 emissions are therefore undergoing a structural slowdown even as global prosperity grows."

Updated: March 06, 2024, 6:58 AM