Peak Emissions Now – the US position

by | May 6, 2010

In the run up to Copenhagen, I suggested the  economic downturn could be used to push for a goal of an immediate peak to global emissions.

In a pastiche of Kennedy’s man on the moon speech, I imagined President Obama laying down the following gauntlet to the world:

I believe that the world should commit itself to achieving the goal of stopping the inexorable rise in greenhouse gas emissions that is doing so much to put our planet in peril. I don’t believe we should aim to achieve this goal in 2020 or 2030 or 2050 – but right now in 2009, making this year the high water mark for mankind’s global experiment with the global climate.

Obviously this didn’t happen, but – gradually – we’re learning more about has happened to emissions. The figures for US carbon dioxide  for 2009 are now in and the good news is that they fell by an astonishing 9%.

Question is: has the US stimulus been wisely spent on measures that will push the economy onto a lower carbon path as it grows again? The answer is probably not, though there is some reason for hope:

As the economy recovers, the structure of that recovery will be important to the future emissions profile of the United States.  If energy-intensive industries lead the economic recovery, emissions would increase faster than if service industries or light manufacturing play the leading role.   If coal, which was more heavily impacted by the recent economic downturn than other energy sources, rebounds disproportionately, the carbon intensity of the energy supply could rise above the 2009 level.

However, longer-term trends continue to suggest decline in both the amount of energy used per unit of economic output and the carbon intensity of our energy supply, which both work to restrain emissions.

The world is at a major inflection point on its carbon trajectory, but I fear we’re going to blunder through it without realising the opportunity for transformation. As Copenhagen showed, unfortunately, we’re still a long, long way from reframing climate change as a now problem. But it’s still not too late to start working for peak emissions.


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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