Climate scientists hail 2023 as ‘beginning of the end’ for fossil fuel era


   Climate experts are optimistic that global efforts to combat the climate crisis may have hit a crucial turning point. In the past year, there's been a notable peak in worldwide carbon emissions from energy use, leading some analysts to suggest that 2023 could mark the pinnacle before a significant decline in the global fossil fuel economy.

This milestone is seen as a pivotal moment in the race to achieve net-zero emissions. However, despite the positive development, many climate experts argue that this turning point should have occurred much earlier and falls short of the swift reductions required to address the climate emergency.

Leading climate scientists emphasize the urgency of curbing emissions before 2030 to limit global heating to a maximum of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Achieving the necessary emission reductions demands a global transformation on an unprecedented scale, a task not yet fully in progress, according to most experts.

Dave Jones, a director at the climate think tank Ember, acknowledges the significance of this tipping point: "We can take a small pause to celebrate this tipping point, but in a way, it's worrying that we are still talking about when emissions might peak. The reality is that we need deep and fast reductions in emissions to stay within the vanishingly small carbon budget that remains."

Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) sparked optimism by forecasting an eventual end to the fossil fuel era. In a groundbreaking prediction, the IEA stated that the consumption of oil, gas, and coal would hit its peak and start declining before 2030, driven by the impact of climate policies.

"It's not a matter of 'if'; it's just a matter of 'how soon' – and the sooner, the better for all of us," emphasized Fatih Birol, the head of the IEA. This forward-looking statement underscores a growing global consensus on the need to transition away from fossil fuels for the benefit of the environment and society.

To grasp the possibility that global emissions might have peaked just two years after experiencing one of the most significant increases in history, examining the global electricity sector is key.

"The world is on the brink of a plateau in power sector emissions," stated Malgorzata Wiatros-Motyka, lead author of a report by Ember. The report, released earlier this year, revealed that electricity generation emissions had leveled off in the first half of 2023 and could potentially start declining from the following year.

The study examined power generation in 78 countries, representing 92% of global electricity demand. It highlighted a 16% increase in solar power generation and a 10% boost in global wind power output.

In a significant finding, the International Energy Agency's (IEA) flagship report, a key player in climate and energy discussions, indicated that the continuous growth of wind and solar power is on course to surpass the world's increasing energy demand. This trend suggests that renewables are set to replace fossil fuels on a global scale.

As electric vehicles (EVs) become more widespread globally, the demand for traditional road fuels, constituting roughly 50% of oil demand in developed nations, is expected to decline.

These shifts gained momentum following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which triggered a surge in gas and oil prices in 2022. This event prompted a renewed emphasis on securing domestic sources of clean energy. In response, there's been a notable acceleration in the adoption of alternative energy sources.

According to a scenario presented by the International Energy Agency (IEA), based on the current policies of governments worldwide, emissions might reach their peak as early as this year before gradually declining. While the IEA emphasizes that its scenarios aren't forecasts, the "stated policies" scenario provides a reliable indicator of the potential future, based on a thorough examination of the current policy landscape.

Multiple reputable energy authorities support these findings with separate studies, collectively painting a picture of a world entering the initial stages of the post-fossil fuel era.

China, the world's top carbon emitter, is anticipated to reach a peak in carbon emissions this year, surpassing those of the United States, India, and Russia combined. A study conducted by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air for Carbon Brief suggests that China's carbon emissions may enter a structural decline by 2024. Surprisingly, China's rapid deployment of wind and solar power has outpaced expectations, potentially overshadowing the country's increasing energy demand.

Climate Analytics, a climate policy institute, also predicts a peak in China's emissions this year, highlighting the possibility of a global emissions "tipping point" in 2023. Dr. Neil Grant, an author of the report, underscores the significance of this development: "We're now approaching the tipping point, where renewables overtake demand growth and start displacing coal, oil, and gas. This would mark the beginning of the end for the fossil economy."

However, there's a cautious note in these predictions. Claire Fyson, another author of the Climate Analytics report, warns that the current trends of rising renewables and electric vehicles must persist for emissions to start declining as anticipated.

"This won't just happen by itself," cautions Claire Fyson. She emphasizes that the transition to renewable energy requires ongoing government policies to incentivize renewables and discourage the use of fossil fuels. Fyson notes that technologies often experience an 'S' curve, where they initially progress rapidly but may slow down over time.

Despite the optimistic outlook for renewables, not everyone agrees that fossil fuels are at the beginning of the end. Major oil producers contend that oil demand and emissions show no signs of diminishing. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) has projected that energy-related carbon emissions will continue to rise until 2050, aligning with the increasing global demand for oil. Similarly, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) anticipates a continued growth in global oil demand until 2045, albeit at a slower pace.

Fyson urges careful consideration of the motives behind such projections, pointing out that it's in OPEC's best interest to forecast a rise in oil demand. Strong oil demand forecasts can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, influencing governments to support more oil and gas exploration. This, in turn, can lead to lower oil prices if the supply exceeds demand, potentially disincentivizing a shift from fossil fuel vehicles or heating systems to more sustainable alternatives.

OPEC has consistently underestimated the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) in its official forecasts, which governments rely on to shape their policies, as per experts. A recent report by Zero Carbon Analytics revealed that OPEC's projections for the number of electric vehicles on the roads by 2022 were off by an average of nearly 60% from 2015 to 2021. In 2021 alone, the cartel's forecasts for the global electric vehicle fleet just one year ahead were inaccurate by 49%, according to the report.

Amy Kong, the author of the report, remarked that these forecasts were "wildly wrong year after year," suggesting a potential "underhand attempt by oil producers to persuade investors and governments that fossil fuels have a future." This discrepancy raises questions about the accuracy and intent behind OPEC's projections regarding the future of the automotive industry and the role of fossil fuels in it.

Even as the world witnesses a decline in fossil fuels and carbon emissions, climate experts warn that the risk of not moving swiftly enough to achieve the necessary emission reductions to prevent global heating beyond 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels remains evident.

The United Nations Environment Programme underscores the urgency, estimating that to have a chance at meeting the 1.5°C target outlined in the Paris Agreement, emissions must decrease by approximately 9% every year. To put this in perspective, emissions dropped by 5.4% during the global standstill caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, only to rebound afterward.

While substantial efforts are needed to address the world's historically high carbon emissions, there is optimism that starting from next year, there is a significant likelihood that, at the very least, emissions will be moving in the right direction. This underscores the importance of sustained and accelerated actions to curb emissions and combat climate change.