World Economy Decoupled From Emissions Thanks In Part To Solar

According to a new report, in 2015, the world economy decoupled from emissions for the first time ever, thanks to the massive adoption of solar power in China and other developing countries.

The US and Europe have enjoyed unprecedented prosperity for more than 160 years, thanks to the Industrial Revolution powered by burning fossil fuels. Because of globalization, huge numbers of people now want in on the fun. The problem is, if they power their economies as the US and Europe did — by relying on coal and oil — the amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere will surely poison us all and leave us no choice but to decamp to Mars to live in one of Elon Musk’s bespoke space colonies.

A worker inspects solar panels at a solar Dunhuang, 590 miles northwest of Lanzhou, Gansu Province September 16, 2013. . REUTERS/Carlos Barria China is a model for what many countries are going through at the moment. It is pushing hard to become a global economic power, but at the heart of the China economic explosion is a total reliance on electricity generated from burning coal.

While coal is among the cheapest of fossil fuels, it also produces enormous amounts of pollutants that have turned the skies over many Chinese cities into poisonous smog. Many of China’s people have taken to wearing surgical masks outdoors to avoid inhaling the worst of the air around them. People looking for a new home no longer say that living near work or close to the ocean is important. Instead, they cite clean air as the number one consideration when deciding where to live.

The Chinese government has recognized its dirty air problem and is moving aggressively to shut down coal-fired generating plants and bring renewable energy to its citizens. In fact, it is now installing solar power faster than any other country on earth. Of the 55 gigawatts of solar power that will be added worldwide in 2015, half will be installed in China and the rest of Asia, especially Japan.

According to Fortune, China has decommissioned 3 gigawatts worth of coal-fired plants recently and wants to shutter another 20 gigawatts worth of coal plants by 2020. India is another emerging industrial power that has relied on electricity from coal to power its economy. Now it too is adding solar power as quickly as possible. While developing countries are miffed that the developed world got where it is by pumping massive amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere, they are prescient enough to realize that if they do the same thing, they will doom us all. It’s not fair; it’s just the way it is.

The good news is that, according to the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21), last year the world’s economy grew by 3% but carbon emissions did not increase at all. That’s remarkable news. The REN21 report credits China’s embrace of solar power, other renewables, and energy efficiency for this achievement. “The landmark ‘decoupling’ of economic and CO2 growth is due in large measure to China’s increased use of renewable resources, and efforts by countries in the OECD to promote more sustainable growth- including increased use of energy efficiency and renewable energy.”

For decades, climate scientists have worried about how climate change would be accelerated by the economic growth of China, India, and other developing countries. For the first time ever, there is reason to hope their worst fears will not be realized.

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About the Author

writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.