How 18 countries are kicking the carbon habit

For the past 15 years, solar energy has been growing by approximately 20 percent each year. R Kollar, UN Photo
3 April 2019

Carbon emissions will be a topic of discussion at Global Landscapes Forum Kyoto on 13 May. Here’s how to listen.

We know we need to stop burning fossil fuels, and fast. But global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels are still climbing, reaching an all-time high in 2018.

However, some of the world’s wealthiest countries are starting to move in the opposite direction. A study recently published in Nature Climate Change shows that between 2005 and 2015, 18 developed nations tracked consistent declines in carbon emissions, without experiencing parallel drops in economic growth. Given that these countries contribute a combined total of 28 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, this reduction is significant.

So, how are they doing it? While some steps are country-specific, the researchers found across the board that each country had managed to do two things.


The first thing each country did was pivot toward renewable energy and “focus on getting fossil fuels out of the energy mix,” says co-author Charlie Wilson, a researcher at the University of East Anglia. The countries used a range of measures to achieve this. The German government, for example, has since 2010 operated under “this very concerted and transparent long-term energy transition plan,” says Wilson.

The plan, called the Energiewende, initially relied on a portion of the country’s energy coming from nuclear plants. Then, when the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred in 2011, the German government pledged to phase out nuclear power, and had to invest much more heavily in alternative renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy as a result. In January this year, the government promised to completely phase out coal by 2038, a challenging move politically and socially given the strength of the country’s coal mining industry. It’s a significant and visible commitment, though many commentators argue the deadline is still too little and too late to meet Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) targets.

The second thing each country did, says Wilson, was cut overall energy use. He points out that fossil fuels have historically provided people with all kinds of useful services, such as heating, lighting, entertainment and mobility. Axing emissions doesn’t necessarily mean going without, but finding ways to meet these needs more efficiently, he says. For example, the U.K. government has explored a number of ways to help people cut heating requirements by improving and insulating their homes, alongside incentivizing the purchase of low-emission vehicles since 2011.


Renewables and energy efficiency certainly sound like the way of the future, but Wilson is quick to emphasize that the shift is by no means inevitable. “There’s nothing deterministic about this,” he says. On the contrary, the researchers found a clear correlation between the number of adopted policies in a country that support renewables and more efficient energy use and the degree of the decline. The finding suggests that supportive national policy frameworks are “critically important” to prompt the transition that’s needed, says Wilson.

Overall, the research provides “grounds for a sliver of optimism,” Wilson concludes. “It is possible – and 18 countries have shown how it’s possible – to turn this juggernaut around and achieve sustained reductions in carbon dioxide emissions over a decade or more,” he says. “And we already know how to do it.”

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