The Problem of Prosperity: Carbon Emissions Back on the Rise

Twenty years ago, when Bill Clinton was first running for president, his political adviser James Carville used to respond to questions about the issues in the campaign by saying, “it’s the economy, stupid.” The “stupid” was a little gratuitous. But the point – that the economy is everything in American politics – still holds true, and it’s just as true when it comes to energy and global warming.

The International Energy Agency put out its latest estimates of world greenhouse gas emissions last week, and found that carbon dioxide emissions had reached a record high in 2010, bouncing back from two years of decline. The reason? The fact the world economy is finally starting to recover from the Great Recession.

When a country’s economy prospers, people have more money, and that means they can afford to use more energy. New businesses open up, more houses get built, more people get jobs and commute, and people buy more stuff. All that translates into higher energy use.

And in a recession – like the Great Recession that hit in 2008 and 2009 – the opposite occurs. Businesses close, people get laid off, which means they produce less, buy less, drive less, and otherwise use less energy than they would otherwise.

Since the world still gets 80 percent of its energy from fossil fuels, right now energy equals carbon emissions, for all practical purposes. So global carbon emissions plunged during the global financial crisis, and are now rebounding as the world slowly recovers.

With energy, the world is mostly faced with the problems of prosperity. That’s particularly true in the developing world, in fast-growing countries like China and India, where both income levels and energy demand are rising fast. The IEA reports that while the developed world – the so-called OECD nations – account for 40 percent of all carbon emissions, they’re only providing 25 percent of the emissions growth since 2009. The other three-quarters is coming from the developing world.

Don’t get us wrong: this is a good thing. Hundreds of millions of people in developing countries are living better lives. Yet to make that happen, the world needs more energy. But are we stuck on this see-saw, where prosperity equals carbon emissions? Well, no. The world can change its energy mix. We can meet that demand with cleaner options. But the other big takeaway from the IEA’s latest report is that time is getting short.

Fossil fuels are still the world’s default setting. The IEA says 80 percent of the projected carbon emissions from electricity generation that will occur in 2020 are already “locked in.” The power plants are already built or under construction. Given how global energy demand is rising, it’s not likely many of those will be taken off line. In the United States, for example, the government is predicting that almost all new power plants over the next two decades will be either renewables or lower-carbon natural gas. But that will only cover the growth in demand – the old plants will stay on line for decades, and the energy mix won’t change.

The problems of prosperity aren’t the worst things to have to deal with. You can argue that one way to dramatically cut carbon emissions would be a total social collapse. Greenhouse gases plummeted in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, for example, but that’s because their economies took a nosedive in the tough transition to free markets. And after all, Mad Max lived in a low-carbon world, too. But not by choice. And while there are people who like to dress up and pretend they’re in the Wasteland, they also like to go home on Monday. It shouldn’t count as an energy strategy.

The IEA is pointing out one of the most important trends we face. The ups and downs in the global economy can cancel out our best efforts to cut carbon emissions and get a cleaner, more reliable energy mix. But unless we make the big changes, soon, we may end up with neither clean energy or a sound economy. The worst of both worlds is not the best option.