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Reaction and Response: Global CO2 Emissions Stable in 2019

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Global carbon dioxide emissions remained stable in 2019 after two years of increases, according to data released Feb. 11 by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

CO2 emissions from advanced economies declined by 0.4 gigatonnes (Gt) while emissions in the rest of the world increased by the same amount.

The following countries are considered advanced economies by IEA: Australia, Canada, Chile, the European Union, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Norway, New Zealand, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States.

Since 1990, overall emissions have risen by nearly 13 Gt with the only noteworthy drop taking place from 2008 to 2009 when overall emissions declined by 0.4 Gt.

This proved an exception, rather than a new trend, as emissions rose 1.7 Gt from 2009 to 2010.

Since then, other than a slight dip and plateau in 2015 and 2016, emissions have risen each year until the plateau from 2018 to 2019.

CO2 emissions among advanced economies in 2019 now equal 1990 levels, having risen to a high of 13 Gt in 2007 before a gradual decline over the next decade plus.

Declines in coal usage and increases in renewable forms of energy have been key drivers of this change.

Over this same period, emissions in the developing world have increased by 12.8 Gt, accounting for the overall emissions increase.

Economic growth has increased energy needs, which are often met through coal-fired power plants. In 2019, coal demand increases in Asia were responsible for 50% of the total energy use and 10 Gt of CO2 emissions.

“We now need to work hard to make sure that 2019 is remembered as a definitive peak in global emissions, not just another pause in growth,” IEA’s Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a press release announcing the data. “We have the energy technologies to do this, and we have to make use of them all.”

EthicsDaily.com reached out to several faith leaders whose work and writings focus on creation care and sustainable development.

“The news that global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels did not increase in 2019 is a small glimmer of hope in an otherwise fairly bleak situation,” Martin Hodson, operations director at The John Ray Initiative, United Kingdom, told EthicsDaily.com via email.

Emphasizing the need for deep cuts to emissions to avoid surpassing the 1.5-degree Celsius rise in global temperature, he cited the COP26 meeting – the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in November – as a crucial moment for “climate diplomacy” and noted the need for a broader look at emissions’ sources.

“Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is only part of the carbon story,” he said. “The recent fires in the Amazon and Australia have substantially added to the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.”

“As Christians, we are commanded by God to care for creation,” Hodson said. “What can we do this year? Several things: cut our own emissions, persuade our churches and denominations to take creation care seriously, lobby our politicians and pray.”

The IEA report is “cause for cautious hope,” Ruth Rosell, associate professor of pastoral theology and counseling, director of contextualized learning and director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence at Central Seminary, told EthicsDaily.com.

“Hope is the spiritual virtue needed to give energy and tenacity in addressing the climate crisis, and hope is nurtured by action,” she said in an email. “The slight drop in carbon dioxide emissions in developed countries, such as the United States and Europe, encourages us to believe that action makes a difference.”

The emissions increase in developing countries is cause for concern, Rosell noted, signaling that heightened efforts to help expand renewable energy sources around the world are vital to addressing climate change.

“Carbon dioxide emissions do not respect national boundaries but are globally shared. There is no room for a self-centered nationalism that cares nothing for its neighbors,” she said. “As earth’s caretakers, those whom God mandated to care for this wondrous creation, may we be spurred on by hope to do whatever we can in our sphere of influence, so that global carbon dioxide emissions actually turn downward in the coming year.”

Jeff Lee – who serves with his wife, Alicia, as CBF field personnel in Macedonia – recently completed a doctorate in environmental management from Colorado Technical University.

In an email to EthicsDaily.com, Lee also tempered the positives in the IEA report in light of “very concerning trends,” including the significant emission increases outside of advanced economies.

“This trend highlights the need to help emerging economies to boost renewables and decrease their dependence on carbon fuels for energy creation,” he said. “CO2 emissions are a global and local issue and require global and local solutions. Individuals have a responsibility and capability to address their behavior to continue to change the local and global economy toward renewable energy sources.”

The full IEA data release is available here.