How to balance the carbon emissions seesaw



The issues surrounding carbon emission are something like the movements of a seesaw.

On one side of the fulcrum are the factors which drive emissions up and, on the other, the factors that bring emissions down.

Increased economic activity, income or population all lead to a rise in emission levels.

So, if reductions in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are to be prioritised, four key factors must be taken into consideration:

• The production and consumption structures of our economies need to become less focused on the manufacture of resource-intensive products

• The technology used to produce goods and services needs to become more energy efficient

• The share of renewable energy needs to increase and the proportion of non-renewable (a.k.a fossil fuel) energy resources needs to decline

• The carbon intensity of the non-renewable energy resources used needs to decrease (i.e. coal has to be substituted by gas)

Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions increased globally by 38 percent between 1990 and 2009 – that’s approximately two per cent annually.

During the same period, the global GDP (the combined increase in population and average income growth) went up by 78 percent, meaning that aggregated technological and behavioural changes succeeded in reducing global emissions by 23 percent.

Globally, energy efficiency accounted for almost all of this improvement. Most countries fail to use the available above-mentioned control mechanisms for decreasing emissions.

The share of renewable energy is only increasing marginally, and countries end up using more of the most polluting fossil fuels at their disposal.

Improved energy efficiency helps, but cannot by itself compensate for the increase in population and average income growth.

Technological development, which in itself provides productivity gains and opportunities for income growth, usually improves energy efficiency by about one per cent per annum.

Global energy efficiency only improved a little more than 20 percent in the last 20 years, indicating that energy efficiency has not been a major priority lately - despite the rise in energy prices.

On the other hand, there are many positive examples at the national level.

Germany and Japan have both managed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by over 15 percent.

The fact that China’s emissions did not increase more than they actually did is due to its successful policies for increased energy efficiency, which reduced carbon dioxide emissions by almost 60 per cent.

And both Iceland and Zambia have almost halved the proportion of non-renewable energy in their energy mix.

Good examples allow other countries to see just what can be achieved if they consistently exploit every opportunity to adopt technical and behavioural factors that are likely to optimise emissions reductions.

In countries with rising populations and rapidly increasing incomes, every opportunity will have to be taken to ensure that emissions do not increase.

The real key to success in the long run is reducing the use of fossil energy, and this is best attained through major investments in renewable energy and through major energy efficiency initiatives.

In this long-term work, all good forces must collaborate both locally and globally.

Countries which have done well can provide good examples of what is achievable and trade unions are key to spreading these good new stories.

Trade unionists can act locally in their workplaces by ensuring that potential greenhouse gas-reducing technologies and behavioural changes are implemented.

Additionally, trade unionists can use their unions to promote national and global action aimed at facilitating the political decisions necessary to enable societal changes - changes which will in their turn lower emissions and improve the likelihood of reaching sustainable development.


Read TCO Sweden’s report, “Carbon-emission – which way will they tip?”, to see the carbon emission balancing acts implemented by more than 100 countries over the last twenty years.