This Study examines the drivers of both the previous decline in global energy-related CO2 emissions, and their subsequent growth in recent years (in the EU, US, India and China), and argues that this trend was in neither case a good indicator of climate policy effort or effectiveness. Global emissions are merely the outcome of the complex relationships between economic activity and energy demand, energy demand and energy supply, and energy supply and energy-related emissions. Climate policy must influence these relationships.

Key Messages

  • Short-term fluctuations in global emissions do not necessarily signal that a fundamental transition is underway. Looking in-depth at the underlying economic and energy system drivers of emissions can reveal more durable emissions trends. There is an urgent need for a systematic, annual analysis of the pace and direction of the global energy transition, which goes beyond headline emissions to analyse the underlying drivers across technology, investment, innovation, the economy, and global markets.
  • The global energy transition is: (1) slow: even in sectors where a transition is occurring, such as electricity generation, this transition is occurring too slowly compared to what needs to be done to limit warming to less than 2°C; (2) superficial: much of the observed emissions mitigation is being driven by measures that will only serve to reduce emissions in the short term (such as coal to gas switching), and not the fundamental and profound transition required for a zero-carbon global energy system by 2050; (3) scattered: changes are so far largely limited to electricity generation; major sectors such as transport and industry are not as yet undergoing any discernible transition away from fossil fuels.
  • The prospects of an ‘autonomous’ energy transition driven by the spectacular increase in the economic competitiveness of zero-carbon technologies is a mirage. The global stocktakes foreseen under the Paris Agreement, as well as non-governmental contributions from international organisations and think tanks, must provide a clear and targeted understanding of the actual state of progress on decarbonising the drivers of emissions growth. And enhanced climate action commitments (NDCs) in 2020 need to be not just more stringent, but also smarter and in line with long-term decarbonisation strategies. They need to kickstart decarbonisation of end-use sectors, reboot energy efficiency policies, and open up new options, by devoting resources to research and deployment.
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