‘IRON LAW:’ The World Got Richer, So CO2 Emissions Went Up

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Global carbon dioxide emissions shot up 1.4 percent in 2017 after three years of flattening out, according to new data.

The jump in emissions comes despite nearly 200 countries signing onto the Paris climate accord, which went into effect in 2016. International Energy Agency data shows, despite Paris pledges, fossil fuel use increased.

So why did this happen?

The answer is simple: “It’s the economy, stupid!” According to the Center for International Climate Research Director Glenn Peters.

The global economy grew nearly four percent in 2017, outweighing improvements in energy efficiency and carbon intensity, according to IEA. On net, booming global economic growth drove emissions upward. Growth was lower from 2014 to 2016, meaning global emissions remained flat.

That’s the macro-level assessment. Of course, the energy sources used to fuel economic growth matter as well when tallying up emissions; and since fossil fuels met 81 percent of global energy demand, economic growth will bring emissions increases.

IEA’s data illustrates the tension between economic growth and global warming regulations illustrating what University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke, Jr. calls the “iron law” of climate policy.

“When policies on emissions reductions collide with policies focused on economic growth, economic growth will win out every time,” Pielke wrote in a 2010 essay. The concept is also in his book, “The Climate Fix.”

Pielke’s “iron law” is “a boundary condition on policy design that is every bit as limiting as is the second law of thermodynamics, and it holds everywhere around the world, in rich and poor countries alike.”

Basically, “even if people are willing to bear some costs to reduce emissions (and experience shows that they are), they are willing to go only so far,” Pielke wrote.

Green energy from solar and wind sources has grown in recent years, but it’s not done much to supplant fossil fuel use on a global scale. Fossil fuels will continue to dominate economic growth, without some big technological change.

Indeed, demand for coal, natural gas and oil grew in 2017. Coal demand rose about one percent, and natural gas and oil demand rose three and 1.6 percent, respectively, IEA reported. World energy demand also grew 2.1 percent — 70 percent of which was met with fossil fuels.

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