Understanding recent energy trends can seem like a high-stakes Rorschach test. Some experts see the boom in renewable energy and the alternative to coal in many countries as evidence that the world is beginning to turn the corner on global warming. Others simply see continued dependence on low-cost fossil fuels, slow government action, and a growing risk of planetary collapse.
The fact is that both sides are right. Renewable energy is indeed undergoing a revolution as the prices of things like solar panels, wind turbines, and lithium ion batteries continue to plummet. And yet it is also true that the world remains dependent on fossil fuels – so much so that even small economic changes can quickly outweigh the gains from clean energy.
This was the case in 2017 when, after remaining relatively stable from 2014 to 2016, carbon emissions grew by about 1.5% (see “A brief lull”). All it took to create this spike was a small increase in economic growth across the developing world, according to a final estimate released in March by the Global Carbon Project, an international research consortium that monitors carbon emissions and climate trends.