As China and the US move away from coal, could global emissions really peak?

For the past decade, the two biggest reasons for despair for those who favour strong action to stop climate change, and the top two excuses for those who don’t, have been the rapid increase in coal-burning in China and inaction in the US.

But in the past few years, to the surprise of many, both these countries have taken major steps away from coal. Their move opens up a crucial window of opportunity to achieve what many thought was a lost cause – a peak in global emissions of heat-trapping gases well before 2020.

Chinese coal caps 

Stopping emission growth as soon as possible is the most urgent first step to avoiding a full-blown climate catastrophe – where temperatures accelerate past 2 degrees – and coal-burning is largely to blame for the bulk of global emissions.

China’s air pollution crisis, mainly caused by the massive amount of coal burning in the country, has prompted some very bold new policies: 10 of China’s 34 provinces have pledged to peak and decline their coal consumption by 2017 and have banned the construction of new coal-fired power plants.

China’s coal consumption growth slowed down significantly in 2013 and may have even dropped in the first half of this year, based on preliminary data.

As I write this in a bullet train through eastern China, with huge smog-shrouded coal power plants and factories rolling past one after the other, I certainly harbour no illusions of China turning into a green paradise overnight. But the evidence is in the numbers and in the attitudes of people I meet: the big coal-burning ship is slowly turning.

In the US, president Obama guided the Environment Protection Agency to limit emissions from coal-fired power plants, putting the country on track to meet its self-declared emission reduction commitment for 2020.

US drop in coal burning is the largest in history

Coal-burning in the US actually peaked in 2007 and has dropped by an astonishing 21%.

This is the largest drop in coal use, in absolute terms, ever experienced by any country in all of history, and no, it is not “just because of shale gas”. More than half of the reduced coal use has been replaced by renewable energy, dominated by wind power, and by reductions in power consumption.

As a result of these changing coal use trends in China and the US, peaking and even declining global greenhouse gas emissions, a task that seemed desperately infeasible just a couple of years ago, is suddenly within reach.

A peak in emissions within reach

This is a bold statement for sure, knowing the recent emission trends: From 2010 to 2013, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels grew at 2.1% per year, which exceeds the growth rate for 2011–2020 that is estimated to be in line with 5–6C warming, and is twice as fast as the growth rate that correlates with approximately 4C warming, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). China’s coal consumption growth was still responsible for over half of global CO2 emission growth.

But behind the top-level numbers often trotted out, the data is changing:

1) New data for the first half of 2014 shows, for the first time this century, an absolute drop in China’s coal consumption. Though this is unlikely to be sustained in the very short term several experts have predicted China’s coal consumption will peak due to the new policies, and this drop seems to be evidence of the approaching emissions peak. Levelling off coal consumption in China would halve the global CO2 growth rate, putting global CO2 emissions in line with IEA’s new policies scenario. The dominant role China’s coal use has played in global emissions growth now suddenly becomes a reason to be optimistic.

2) The EU reduced its emissions by 2.4% per year, Australia by 2.7% and the US by 1.2% per year between 2010–2013. This was sufficient to offset the emission growth from India, Southeast Asia and Brazil. If the EU continued emission reductions at this rate, it would achieve a 30% domestic emission cut by 2020.

3) Greenhouse gas emissions released by destruction of forests in the tropics are in a slow, sustained decline, despite strong yearly fluctuations. Factoring in this development, global CO2 emissions are trending up at approximately 1.8% per year.

What this means is that there are now – as perhaps never before – a range of ways in which global emissions can stop rising.

To start with emissions from the non-US members of the OECD club of more developed economies could stop rising due to a global deal.

Emissions from Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Turkey, Chile and Canada grew by an average of 2% a year over the last three years yet these are theoretically the countries with the best economic capacity to act.

What then, if the recent positive trends in China, the US and elsewhere continued and were enforced further? How far could we get?


How emissions could peak – a cut out and keep exercise

Emissions between 2010–2013

  • Fossil fuel use growth from non-OECD countries: +2.4%-points
  • Emissions reductions in the EU and the US: -0.5%-points
  • Emissions growth in rest of the OECD: +0.2%-points


Declining emissions from tropical deforestation: -0.2%


How emissions could stabilise peak and decline before 2020

  • Maintain current emission reduction rates in EU and US: See above
  • Zero growth of coal use in China: -1.1%-points
  • Stop emissions growth in rest of the OECD: -0.2%-points
  • Zero tropical deforestation by 2020: -1.0%-points



This back-of-an-envelope illustration demonstrates one way in which the emissions peak could now realize, without radical new breakthroughs.

It is not the only way, or the best way to achieve the peak. Of course most scenarios suggest that developed countries should have peaked and reduced their emissions ages ago.

But this small numerical exercise shows how what seemed impossible just a few years ago – global emissions peak – is now within reach, thanks to some recent positive trends.

In the same spirit of “what if”, the graph also illustrates what the impact could be if the emission growth trends non-OECD countries (other than China) declined by one third.

For those concerned about tackling climate change this isn’t a reason for complacency. This is an all hands on deck moment, akin to a moment when the crew of a stranded ship suddenly sees an unlikely, narrow passage to safer waters.

The task of peaking global emissions of heat-trapping gases is more urgent than ever, and the fact that the target is now finally within reach is a reason to redouble our efforts, for a major turning point in the battle to prevent climate chaos.