Climate Action

The decoupling of emissions and growth is underway. These 5 charts show how

A chimney in an industrial area of Sydney emits vapour June 22, 2009.

The global aggregate masks great diversity in the country-levels details. Image: REUTERS/Tim Winbourne

Cassie Werber
Writer, Quartz Africa
Jason Karaian
Senior Europe Correspondent, Quartz
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Climate Crisis

Producing more stuff takes more energy. Using more energy means more pollution. That statement would once have seemed like common sense.

Because most of our energy has historically come from fossil fuels, rising economic growth has gone hand in hand with higher carbon emissions. But in 2014, something extraordinary happened. Globally, carbon emissions decoupled from GDP growth.

According to the International Energy Agency, energy-related CO2 emissions were flat that year, despite an increase of around 3% in global GDP. “This is the first time in at least 40 years that a halt or reduction in emissions has not been tied to an economic crisis,” the IEA said at the time.

But the global aggregate masks great diversity in the country-levels details. This, for example, is Denmark:

 Denmark: Growth in GDP and CO2 emissions since 1990
Image: Quartz

The decoupling between GDP and CO2 started long ago in Denmark, a small economy with a big commitment to clean energy. The country has managed to cut carbon emissions from energy combustion below 1990 levels, the baseline generally cited in global climate agreements.

Several other developed countries, mainly in Europe, have done the same, by expanding renewable-energy capacity as a substitute for fossil fuels (especially coal) and boosting energy efficiency to conserve more power:

 Growth in GDP and CO2 emissions since 1990
Image: Quartz

The carbon intensity of other big economies has been falling as well, although absolute emissions remain higher than they were in 1990. This is the case, for example, in the US, the world’s second-largest emitter:

 USA: Growth in GDP and CO2 emissions since 1990
Image: Quartz

China, the biggest emitter on the planet, has also managed to weaken the link between GDP and emissions growth, in part due to a massive push into renewable energy. But make no mistake: China is still pumping out a huge, and growing, amount of CO2 per year:

 China: Growth in GDP and CO2 emissions since 1990
Image: Quartz

Other large, rapidly industrializing countries show fainter signs of decoupling, although it’s there if you look very closely:

 Growth in GDP and CO2 emissions since 1990
Image: Quartz

This is a hopeful sign for the planet—up to a point. The countries that have made most headway in cutting emissions are developed, relatively rich, and settled on a modest economic growth path.

Meanwhile, the faster-growing countries that are trying to catch up are being urged to curb emissions in a way that advanced countries never considered. Although the link between GDP and emissions appears to be breaking down, climate scientists warn that we’re already dangerously close to the point of no return when it comes to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere that will bring about disastrous and irreversible climate change.

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