How to cut CO2 emissions? Four examples (Weekly pic)

Four countries, four histories of CO2 reductions. Data from World Bank and CDIAC carbon database.

In order to avoid dangerous climate change – a calamity that would disproportionately hit the world’s poorest and most vulnerable – we now need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions at a rate exceeding 3 percent per year for the next 35 years or more. This is a monumental task, to put it mildly.

Given the stakes, the need, and the short time available, one would assume the world leaders would take a look at historically achieved emission reduction rates. However, evidence suggests this hasn’t been happening. How otherwise should we explain that climate discussions still raise Germany’s Energiewende policies to the pedestal, while completely ignoring those countries who have actually managed to reduce emissions at or nearly at the rates now required?

This graph, based on CDIAC carbon emission database and World Bank statistics, tracks the history of per capita emissions and identifies the best 10-year period of emission reductions. As you can see, in this historical light the achievements of that paragon of climate policies seem more like dismal failure than an example to be followed. At least three countries (as well as additional examples such as Switzerland) have accidentally implemented better climate policies than what the “best” climate policy so far has delivered. Two of these, France and Sweden, have produced at least 80 percent of their electricity from low-carbon sources since 1990. This 80 percent happens to be the goal Germany is striving for – by 2050!  What’s more, these policies were enacted against a backdrop of rising electricity consumption per capita, whereas German policy relies on ambitious energy saving schemes coming to fruition.

In every field imaginable, it would be very bad news indeed if accident and chance repeatedly delivers better results than the “best” policy promoted. We need to raise our voices to ensure policy-makers stop burying their heads in sand and take a hard look at the measures that have actually and repeatedly been able to reduce emissions at rates now required. Anything else is a huge gamble with the climate and our living world.

For more information, get our book Climate Gamble, either from online stores or by coming to Paris during COP21 negotiations where we’re handing out nearly 5000 copies for free.


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