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How to clean up

How to clean up

Natural and unnatural disasters can cut carbon emissions, but so can the right policies.

What do Greece, Finland, Italy, Denmark and Ukraine have in common? They’re the world’s fastest cutters of CO2 emissions (and Ukraine leads the pack). 

Twenty-four countries in all have shrunk their carbon footprints each year since 2009. All but two are in Europe. One is Jamaica. The other is the USA. All of them have 

  • lowered the carbon intensity of their energy sectors, and
  • lowered the energy intensity of their economic output, while
  • raising GDP. 

So it’s official. Growth and decarbonisation aren’t mutually exclusive. They co-exist in some of the world’s richest countries, and in a few of them emissions have fallen fast enough to align with 2 degrees of warming or less. In the rest of the world – especially Asia – emissions keep on rising, but a close study of these 24 countries in the journal Climate Policy reveals four useful lessons:

  1. Disasters help. In polite language, exogenous shocks can dramatically cut emissions. The Soviet collapse, the 2008 crash and Covid all did more than government policies to slow the build-up of atmospheric CO2, at least in the short term. Ukraine in the 90s is the most striking example of a steep fall in emissions because of a geopolitical meltdown, in this case the evaporation of demand from the rest of the Soviet bloc and the implosion of its industrial sector. 

  1. But policy works too. 21 of the 24 countries in the study gave themselves binding carbon reduction targets under the Kyoto protocol. These led to average cuts of 7 per cent compared with a no-Kyoto scenario, but the process was painfully slow. The protocol was adopted in 1997 and came into force in 2005 but didn’t lead to binding limits anywhere until 2008-12. 

  2. Focus on power and heat. The study divides the 24 countries into three groups – i) long-term decliners (including the UK), ii) former Eastern Bloc and iii) recent peakers (including the US). In all three, power and heat generation are the low-hanging fruit of decarbonisation. They deliver by far the biggest emissions cuts. But where these are achieved by switching from coal to gas, new gas infrastructure will eventually slow down the clean energy transition. To complete the transition you need to replace gas with renewables and / or nuclear power.

  3. Transport is stubbornly high-carbon. Entrenched car cultures and intensive lobbying by car manufacturers have meant rising emissions from road transport in categories i) and ii), even as overall emissions have fallen. 

Does this mean all the recent excitement about EVs amounts to nothing? It does not. The Climate Policy study cites many others, but with a cut-off date of 2018. The world has changed since then:

  • Tesla has taken it by storm.
  • VW has earmarked €73 billion to re-tool its entire operation round batteries and electric drivetrains.
  • This week Nissan announced an $18 billion investment programme to stay competitive in a field in which it used to be a pioneer (with the Leaf).
  • And the Telegraph cites an Autovia survey in which for the first time more prospective UK car buyers say their next purchase will be electric (34 per cent) than petrol (25). (Hybrids, diesel and don’t knows make up the rest.)

The reality check. All the emissions cuts studied by Climate Policy amount to 3.2 gigatons of CO2 equivalent a year, compared with net global emissions of 36.7 gigatons in 2019, the last year before the Covid dip. So carbon released dwarfs carbon saved by a factor of more than ten. But at least the 24 cutters set an example – and the worst offenders are named, too. In terms of average annual increase in emissions, they are Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and, worst at 5.2 per cent per year, Turkey.

watch now

Catch up on our series of ThinkIns at The New York Times Climate Hub in Glasgow

science and tech

Plastic measures
Beach clean-ups won’t cut it. Removing 5 trillion pieces of plastic from the ocean needs some thinking outside the box. Here’s a scheme with potential: scientists have found a way for ships involved in cleaning up ocean plastic to pick it up and turn it into diesel onboard, eliminating the need to return to port to dump it and refuel. Hydrothermal liquefaction involves using high pressures and temperatures of 550°C to break plastic down into polymers. Researchers admit it’s not a silver bullet, but it is calculated to be quicker and less carbon-intensive than all that sailing back-and-forth. They say up to 11,500 tonnes of plastic could be removed each year by one specialist ship sailing through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. By our optimistic calculation – and provided the Texas-sized gyre of trash doesn’t grow – that means the job could be done by 2027. Any philanthropists looking for a project?


Albatrosses are some of the most monogamous creatures on the planet. But warming seas are affecting their food supply, leading to a higher rate of “divorce”. A Royal Society study finds that when times were good, between zero and 4 per cent of couples would split. But in years with unusually warm weather – 2017, for example – albatross divorce rates climbed as high as 8 per cent. There are other reasons why climate change is unsettling nests. First, warming waters mean the birds have to hunt for longer and fly further. Second, a harsher environment means they produce more stress hormones, and they may even blame their partner when feeling a bit rough. The study also points to a broader trend: wandering albatross populations have been falling by at least 5 per cent every year since 2005. If these spectacular birds are to keep that loving feeling, they need a chance to cool off.

activism and engagement

Fungi to be mapped
Anyone who’s read Isabella Tree’s seminal book Wilding will know of the almost magical powers of mycorrhizal fungi, which circle the planet nourishing its soils and possibly holding the key to boosting their carbon uptake and thus controlling climate change. They are now to be mapped. The Guardian reports that the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN) will collect 10,000 mycorrhizal fungi samples, starting next year in Patagonia, to help “protect the soil, on which life depends, before it is too late”. So says Jane Goodall, best known as a chimpanzee expert, who’s advising the project. Another expert says if trees are the lungs of the planet, these fungi are its circulatory systems. The project is being funded with $3.5 million from Jeremy Grantham, the billionaire British investor, who at 83 may not live to see the fruits of his wisdom but can be sure the rest of us are grateful.


Win some, lose some
Oh to be a wind power engineer in Scotland right now. Pay is good; prospects even better. A new jobs barometer for the UK created by PwC finds that Scotland has a bigger share of jobs being created by the energy transition than anywhere else in Britain. Nicola Sturgeon will be overjoyed, or would be if there wasn’t a catch (£). Scotland will also be the biggest jobs loser in the transition, along with the East Midlands. In a sense it stands to reason: governments and markets are gradually calling time on oil and gas, which augurs ill for Aberdeen, but insofar as the dream of the UK becoming the Saudi Arabia of wind power becomes reality, Scotland stands to benefit as much as anywhere. PwC says 124,600 “net zero jobs” have been created so far, towards a government target of 2 million by 2030. Can you get one if you’re not a wind power engineer? Aberdeen has been given £26 million of public money to try to ensure the answer’s yes, but it won’t be straightforward.

Do share this around, and let us know what you think of it.

Thanks for reading.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Barney Macintyre

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