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Could 2023 be the year global emissions peak?

Global greenhouse gas emissions could peak this year, but what needs to happen to ensure an era of rapid decarbonization swiftly follows?

Smokestack emissions at an unidentified location.

Smokestack emissions at an unidentified location. Source: Pexels/ron rov

Some better news on the global response to the climate crisis, at last. An analysis out this morning calculates a 70 percent chance that global greenhouse emissions will start falling in 2024 — which would make 2023 the year emissions peaked.

Climate Analytics, a science and policy institute based in Berlin, has produced an analysis that offers a timely dose of optimism following the latest wave of pre-COP reports confirming that global emissions are still rising and current government climate targets put the world on track for well over 2 degrees Celsius of warming this century.

The top takeaway from the report is that, if clean technology trends continue and action on reducing methane emissions is ramped up, there is a better than evens chance greenhouse gas emissions will start to fall next year. With scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that global emissions must peak by 2025 if the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal is to be kept within reach, the conclusion is significant.

Climate Analytics predictions are founded on a scenario where current growth trends for wind, solar and electric vehicle (EV) technologies are maintained and countries signed up to the Global Methane Pledge make "adequate progress" towards their goal of cutting emissions 30 percent by 2030. Justifying the rationale for exploring this "continued acceleration scenario" — which follows the S-curve deployment model historically experienced by many maturing technologies — the researchers said more modest projections for clean tech deployment developed by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and others had tended to be overly conservative when compared to actual wind and solar growth data to date.

A tripling of renewable capacity by 2030, driven by turbocharged wind and solar deployment, is still well within reach.

The rapid rollout of zero-carbon technologies in recent years is set to eat into fossil fuel demand, Climate Analytics said, predicting that installed capacity of renewables would reach around 9 Terawatts by 2030, with wind and solar providing 7.5 Terawatts.

Echoing findings published from energy think tank Ember, the analysts note the world is already close to being on track to meet the proposed goal of tripling of renewable capacity by 2030 — a target governments are set to debate at the COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai next week. "A tripling of renewable capacity by 2030, driven by turbocharged wind and solar deployment, is still well within reach," the report notes.

Such rapid growth of zero-carbon technologies would be sufficient to cover the projected growth of energy demand and start to eat into demand for fossil fuels, Climate Analytics said. As such, its scenario sees total fossil fuel demand reaching its peak in 2023, and then entering a period of rapid decline from 2025.

"For years, energy demand growth has outstripped renewables deployment, despite record additions of wind and solar," said report author and Climate Analytics expert Neil Grant. "We're now approaching the tipping point, where renewables overtake demand growth and start displacing coal, oil and gas. This would mark the beginning of the end for the fossil economy."

The IEA is predicting a peak in fossil gas demand by 2029, but Climate Analytics' scenario suggests demand peaking five years earlier, in 2024. Meanwhile, it expects coal demand should peak this year, with oil demand then peaking in 2025, as the continued growth in electric vehicle slashes demand for the fossil fuel from the transport sector. "The continued acceleration scenario would see distinctive peaks in all three fossil fuels by 2025," the report states.

The report emphasises that its findings — while providing a more optimistic view of the future than many mainstream analyses — offer no room for complacency. Peaking greenhouse gas emissions would be a historic milestone, but it is not enough to limit warming to 2 Celsius, let alone the more demanding 1.5 Celsius goal. Even under the "accelerated progress" scenario emissions are set to fall by just 10 percent by 2030 on 2019 levels — less than a quarter of the 43 percent cut required by the end of this decade if the world is to move onto a 1.5 degrees Celsius compatible decarbonization trajectory.

For years, energy demand growth has outstripped renewables deployment, despite record additions of wind and solar.

To deliver the rest of the steep emissions cuts required by 2030 for a 1.5 Celsius pathway, governments need to set in motion policies that would enable not just a tripling of renewables capacity and a doubling of the rate of energy efficiency, but also a reduction in fossil fuel use of 40 percent by 2030, Climate Analytics stressed.

And while the peak in fossil fuel demand is close, these trends are jeopardised by governments' continued investment in expanding fossil fuel production. A report published by BloombergNEF reveals how governments and state-owned companies in 19 of the G20 nations provided $1.3 trillion of support to the fossil fuel industry last year alone.

Fossil fuel projects being greenlit today are at high risk of becoming stranded assets as demand for fossil fuel falls, but they could also hamper the world's ability to cut emissions at pace given the lobbying power of vested interests and the potential for the market to be flooded with fossil fuels. "Action to boost fossil fuel supply could reduce willingness to accelerate climate action, by entrenching vested interests in the energy system and reducing fossil fuel prices," the report notes. "Current fossil fuel expansion plans represent both a huge climate and economic risk that does not need to be taken."

The group's head of policy, Claire Fyson, urged governments attending the COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai to commit to peaking global emissions by 2025. "We find the world can peak emissions in time for the IPCC deadline, but only if governments work with the market to support renewables and stop pulling in the wrong direction with fossil funding and subsidies," she said. "A peaking commitment at COP28 Climate Summit would send a clear signal that they mean business."

In related news, a separate report published by BloombergNEF has urged governments to ramp up industrial decarbonization efforts through a range of policies, including the provision of operational subsidies, tax credits and grants that could enable the transition of industrial sites to a range of clean technologies, such as electrification, green hydrogen, green ammonia and carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS).

Policymakers continue to offer much less support to help these emissions-intensive sectors decarbonized compared to the support available for the renewable power and electrified transport sectors, which are now increasingly cost competitive with traditional fuels and internal combustion engines after "decades of subsidies," BNEF noted. In 2022, just 3 percent of global investment in the energy transition went towards industrial decarbonization projects, despite a huge 13 percent of global CO2 emissions coming from the production of steel, cement and petrochemicals, it said.

Climate Analytics findings offer some relief after the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warned in its latest Emission Gap report that the climate plans of governments were on track to steer the world towards a highly dangerous 2.5 to 2.9 degrees Celsius of global warming this decade. As the IEA pointed out in the update to its flagship Net Zero Roadmap earlier this autumn, the rapid pace of clean technology deployment is offering a lifeline for climate goals despite that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius gets more challenging with each year that emissions continue to rise. With policy decisions a key determinant over how fast clean technologies can be deployed and continued investment acting as a counterweight to global decarbonization trends, it remains unclear what will happen once global emissions peak. Will the world embark on an era of rapid decarbonization or will emissions remain stubbornly high even once the peak has been passed? The good news is we could be about to find out.

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