Countries Big and Small Are Connecting Economic Growth to Renewable Energy, and It's Working

Costa Rica and the U.K. are prospering even as they decrease coal-fired power, suggesting that dirty energy isn't required for healthy economies.

Wind farm on the approach to the Port of Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Mar 27, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The United Kingdom saw the steepest single-year drop in greenhouse gas pollution in more than two decades in 2014, according to government data released on Thursday. The country's carbon emissions fell 8.4 percent, even as its economy grew by 2.6 percent.

The decline in carbon emissions was the largest ever in a year when the U.K. economy expanded, according to The Carbon Brief.

It’s a big step forward for a country that has legally committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to just 20 percent of its 1990 levels. The U.K. is currently emitting about 28 percent less than it was in 1990.

U.K. carbon dioxide emissions fell by 9.7 percent in 2014 compared with the previous year, according to figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change. (Graph: Courtesy DECC)

 

In Europe as a whole, energy use dropped to 1990 levels last year, despite population and economic growth. Worldwide, emissions from the energy sector flatlined even as economic activity grew in 2014—a development not seen in 40 years.

Different factors contributed to decreasing the U.K.'s greenhouse gas emissions. The country gets a fifth of its energy from renewable sources like wind and solar farms; in 2014 energy generated from coal-fired power plants fell 23 percent, taking emissions of carbon dioxide down almost 10 percent.

CO2 created by burning fossil fuels is the leading cause of global warming.

Since 1990, U.K. carbon dioxide emissions have decreased by 29 percent, due in part to the changes in the mix of fuels being used for electricity generation, including the growth of renewables. (Graph: Courtesy DECC)

Environmental activists praised the record drop in carbon emissions while calling for even stronger steps to curb climate-changing pollution. “We must remember that more ambitious carbon emissions reductions are required across different sectors to meet our climate change commitments,” said Emma Pinchbeck of the World Wildlife Fund. “We have the technology for a clean, green, low-carbon economy, we just need to see it rolled out to reduce our reliance on dirty fossil fuels.”

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Costa Rica also hit a big energy milestone: For the first 75 days of 2015, the Central American country produced all of its energy without burning any coal, gas, or other fossil fuels.

Heavy rainfall levels at the sites of four hydropower plants, combined with increased solar, wind, and geothermal energy capacity, allowed Costa Rica to power its grid solely with renewable sources from January 1 to March 16.

“2015 has been a year of electricity totally friendly with the environment to Costa Rica,” the Costa Rican Electricity Institute announced in a press release.

Like the U.K., Costa Rica saw economic growth at the same time its energy-based greenhouse emissions decreased. The 3.6 percent increase in the country’s 2014 gross domestic product is just the latest in a five-year streak in economic growth. The Central American country and its 5 million citizens have a goal of being carbon-neutral by 2021. Mixing new geothermal energy projects in with its existing hydropower plants will make it even less reliant on fossil fuels.

Countries able to limit emissions while growing economically is good news and a “welcome surprise,” said Fatih Birol, International Energy Agency executive director—especially ahead of climate treaty talks in Paris later this year. Negotiators at those talks will be seeking to finalize the next formal international agreement on cutting carbon pollution to limit climate change.