Abstract

Global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuels and industry increased by 2.2% per year on average between 2005 and 20151. Global emissions need to peak and decline rapidly to limit climate change to well below 2 °C of warming2,3, which is one of the goals of the Paris Agreement4. Untangling the reasons underlying recent changes in emissions trajectories is critical to guide efforts to attain those goals. Here we analyse the drivers of decreasing CO2 emissions in a group of 18 developed economies that have decarbonized over the period 2005–2015. We show that within this group, the displacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy and decreases in energy use explain decreasing CO2 emissions. However, the decrease in energy use can be explained at least in part by a lower growth in gross domestic product. Correlation analysis suggests that policies on renewable energy are supporting emissions reductions and displacing fossil fuels in these 18 countries, but not elsewhere, and that policies on energy efficiency are supporting lower energy use in these 18 countries, as well as more widely. Overall, the evidence shows that efforts to reduce emissions are underway in many countries, but these efforts need to be maintained and enhanced by more stringent policy actions to support a global peak in emissions followed by global emissions reductions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement3.

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Data availability

Energy data from the World Energy Balances, CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, and GDP data from the International Energy Agency are available at: https://www.iea.org/statistics. CO2 emissions based on consumption and from UNFCCC are available at https://www.icos-cp.eu/GCP/2018 (latest available version). CO2 emissions from BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2017 are available at: https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy.html. Policy data from the IEA/IRENA Joint Policies and Measures are available at: https://www.iea.org/policiesandmeasures/renewableenergy/.

Additional information

Journal peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Christopher Green and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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Acknowledgements

C.L.Q., C.W., G.P.P. and D.P.v.V. received funding from the UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, as part of the ‘Implications of global warming of 1.5 °C and 2 °C' project. A.J. and J.T. were supported by the European Commission COST Action IS1309 (INOGOV). C.L.Q. and C.W. also received funding from the European Commission, respectively from grant no. 776810 for the VERIFY project and from ERC Starting Grant no. 678799 for the SILCI project. We thank L. Leopold for assistance with the policy data. We thank the IEA for providing access to it’s data.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK

    • Corinne Le Quéré
    • , Charlie Wilson
    •  & Andrew Jordan
  2. CICERO Center for International Climate Research, Oslo, Norway

    • Jan Ivar Korsbakken
    • , Robbie Andrew
    •  & Glen P. Peters
  3. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria

    • Charlie Wilson
  4. Institute of Political Science and Heidelberg Center for the Environment, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany

    • Jale Tosun
  5. Climate Change Science Institute, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN, USA

    • Robert J. Andres
  6. Global Carbon Project, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, Canberra, Australia

    • Josep G. Canadell
  7. PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, The Hague, The Netherlands

    • Detlef P. van Vuuren
  8. Utrecht University, Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development, Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • Detlef P. van Vuuren

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Contributions

C.L.Q., G.P.P. and J.G.C. conceived the project. C.L.Q., J.I.K., G.P.P., C.W., R.A. and R.J.A. designed and produced the analysis of the energy and CO2 data. J.T. and A.J. designed and produced the analysis of the policy data. D.P.v.V. and C.W. provided and analysed the IAM data. All authors contributed to the interpretation of the results and wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Corinne Le Quéré.

Supplementary information

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    Supplementary Tables 1–6, Supplementary Figures 1–4, Supplementary References

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https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0419-7