During a pivotal moment in human history when we should be reducing global carbon emissions, a new report by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) says that energy-related emissions will rise through 2050.
The federal agency doesn’t expect most emission increases to come from countries like the U.S., though. In a report released Monday, it projects countries outside the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) will be driving the rise in energy-related emissions, China, India, and Indonesia among them. These countries are among the top coal-burners in the world today, and carbon dioxide emissions from coal production among non-OECD countries are expected to increase on average by 0.6 percent each year through 2050. China will continue being the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2050, according to this report.
But what’s projected to really drive the emissions increase in developing countries, though, is natural gas. The EIA expects emissions from this energy source to increase 1.7 percent annually through 2050 for non-OECD countries. For OECD countries—which include the U.S., Australia, France, Mexico, and others— however, emissions from natural gas are forecast to increase by 0.5 percent.
So even the largely developed countries of OECD aren’t projected to take dramatic enough action to prevent complete climate catastrophe in this future, per the EIA’s analysis. That’s especially true for the U.S., which the agency expects will remain the largest emitter of energy-related carbon dioxide among the 36 OECD countries.
Still, the emissions increases from OECD countries like the U.S. will be minimal compared to what we’ll see coming out of other countries. In fact, emissions from coal and oil will decrease. That’s in large part due to cheap natural gas, but also technological improvements that can help offset energy demand increases. Plus, developed economies won’t necessarily see huge changes whereas developing countries playing catch up are likely to see a major rise in air conditioning and more energy-intensive lifestyles.
There will still be energy intensity disparities between OECD and non-OECD countries, though. By 2050, the EIA projects non-OECD countries will emit 3.8 metric tons of carbon per person compared to 8.2 metric tons of carbon per person in OECD countries.
Many advocates argue that these budding economies should skip dirty energy that more developed countries went through. The historical trajectory has been coal, then oil, then gas, environmentalists argue that the Global South should jump right into clean energy. To avoid going down that dirty energy path, developed countries should financially help their developing neighbors, especially because once the infrastructure for coal or gas is built, it’s tough to walk away from. That’s especially true because Europe and North America are the main culprits that have caused climate change, but people in developing countries will bear the brunt of the impacts in the form of, among other things, typhoons, droughts, and poverty.
The EIA forecast is based on current development patterns (what the agency calls a “reference case”). This isn’t a bright future—and certainly not what society needs to do to stop the worst of climate change—but we can avoid it if we all transition away from dirty fossil fuels. That, of course, is easier said than done, but it’s not impossible.
The capacity for solar and wind is growing around the world. It’s not yet at a level where we’re on track to meet the emissions reduction targets set forth in the Paris Agreement, but government action over the next decade will largely shape what the world looks like come 2050. And the public won’t let them ignore climate change. Not anymore.