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It's time to double down on decarbonization efforts

A deeply worrying new trend has appeared — the recoupling of emissions and economic growth.

The Easter bank holiday heralded bright news for green businesses and environmentalists in the United Kingdom.

Not only did new data reveal renewable's share of electricity generation hit a record high of almost 30 percent in 2017, but provisional government statistics showed overall greenhouse gas emissions fell 2.6 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year.

Unfortunately, the picture is not as bright elsewhere. Recent weeks have seen the shoots of a deeply worrying new trend appear  the recoupling of emissions to economic growth.

For years uncoupling emissions from economic growth was something of a Holy Grail for environmentalists, proof the global economy could thrive and living standards rise even as we slashed emissions and averted dangerous global warming. It promised a future that could keep everyone happy.

And while clean technologies and low carbon infrastructure provided evidence such uncoupling was theoretically possible, the years around the 2015 Paris Agreement fueled hopes it already was coming to pass.

Greenhouse gas emissions from the global energy industry rose 1.4 percent in 2017, marking the first rise in three years.

International Energy Agency (IEA) data showed that since 2015, global energy-related emissions had remained flat, even as the economy grew. Three years of plateauing emissions, unprecedented in a time of economic growth, was hailed as a sign the world was starting to "bend the curve" of global emissions. As emissions growth stalled, scientists, environmentalists and commentators became increasingly confident a peak had been reached.

But last month we came down to earth with a bump. On March 22, the IEA confirmed greenhouse gas emissions from the global energy industry rose 1.4 percent in 2017, marking the first rise in three years.

It was fueled by a 2.1 percent growth in global energy demand last year  more than double the pace of 2016 — which according to the IEA was driven by strong economic growth in fast-developing economies such as China and India.

Just five days later, news came that Australia's greenhouse gas emissions hit their highest level on record, thanks to an uptick in land clearance and industrial activity.

A week after that, new data from Thomson Reuters revealed greenhouse gas emissions regulated by the EU's Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) have risen for the first time in seven years.

The news is an urgent wake-up call that we can't rest on our laurels when it comes to decarbonization.

Growth in the ETS emissions was spurred by  yes, you guessed it  strong growth in the European economy, which increased 2.5 percent in 2017, according to the research team.

Inevitably, none of this news generated the mainstream media attention headlines that should be sparked by a trend that could prove catastrophic for global efforts to tackle climate change, and by extension the long-term health of the global economy. 

But it all certainly begs the question: Does this put the kibosh on the idea that "green growth" is an achievable aim?

The answer is, of course not. Or rather, it better not.

The U.K. is still a leading light in demonstrating that economic growth can go hand in hand with falling emissions  last year the economy grew 1.8 percent even as emissions fell, according to preliminary data from PwC.

Meanwhile, the IEA data revealed Japan and the United States also delivered falling emissions as their economies grew. In fact, the biggest drop was recorded in the U.S., where energy-related emissions fell by 0.5 percent as energy demand shrank and new renewable generation came online.

The fear is that falling emissions in many industrialized economies are being more than offset by soaring emissions in Asia's emerging economic superpowers. Is Europe and North America simply exporting its emissions? It is a valid concern, but here too there are reasons for optimism. China and India are investing heavily in low carbon infrastructure, and while global emissions rose last year they are not yet perfectly coupled with the growing global economy. The carbon intensity of global economic activity is still falling, which suggests green growth remains a plausible ambition.

Growth in the ETS emissions was spurred by strong growth in the European economy.

However, the news is an urgent wake-up call that we can't rest on our laurels when it comes to decarbonization. Not only do we need to move faster in phasing out the obvious drivers of rising emissions such as coal power, but the data throws into sharp relief the new decarbonization challenges coming to the fore.

Much more work needs to be done to promote better energy efficiency for starters, with the IEA's Fatih Birol warning of a "dramatic slowdown" in the rate of improvement in global energy efficiency in 2017, thanks to a lack of ambition from policymakers. But businesses must play their part, and programs such as the Climate Group's EP100 can help show them the way.

Meanwhile, the transport challenge is becoming harder to ignore. Already in the U.K. and U.S., transport is the largest source of greenhouse gases, and emissions are still rising every year. In Australia, it was one of the root causes behind rising emissions in 2017. It's the same story in the EU — aviation emissions alone shot up a staggering 13 percent in 2017, according to the Point Carbon data.

We need to realize — urgently — that decarbonizing road, rail, sea and air travel is just as important as shuttering coal power plants in the fight against climate change. Governments must employ both the carrot and stick in their approach to solving the problem, simultaneously channeling innovation spend into green technologies and clamping down on the most polluting activities, technologies and behaviors. This week's controversial decision from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is sadly the exact opposite of such an approach.

The data suggests we risk letting the Holy Grail of green growth slip through our fingers. The only way to keep it in our grasp is to double down on decarbonization efforts and ensure that next time emissions and growth head their separate ways, it's for good.

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