Nature and Biodiversity

Here's the proof: you can cut carbon emissions without hurting the economy

A chimney in an industrial area of Sydney emits vapour June 22, 2009. Australia's government, facing Senate defeat of key emission trading laws, vowed on Friday to bring its climate-fighting regime to the upper house a second time, opening the door for a possible snap election.        REUTERS/Tim Wimborne    (AUSTRALIA ENERGY POLITICS ENVIRONMENT IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR24WOS

CO2 emissions in Europe, the United States, and most surprisingly of all, China, have been falling. Image: REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Keith Breene
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It’s known as decoupling: cutting the link between carbon emissions and economic growth. Many feared it was impossible, but it is starting to happen.

From the beginning of 2014 to the end of 2015, the global economy grew by 6.5%, but carbon dioxide emissions from energy generation and transport did not grow at all, according to International Energy Agency (IEA) figures.

In fact, CO2 emissions in Europe, the United States, and most surprisingly of all, China, have been falling.

The data from the IEA shows that global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, the largest source of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, stayed flat for the last two years.

Image: IEA

“The new figures confirm last year’s surprising but welcome news: we now have seen two straight years of greenhouse gas emissions decoupling from economic growth,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.

“After the landmark COP21 agreement in Paris, this is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change.”

Green investment

The importance of decoupling was underlined by the Bank of England’s governor recently when he backed the fledgling market in green investments.

Mark Carney used a speech in Berlin to highlight the paradox of ‘success is failure’, “that is, too rapid a movement towards a low-carbon economy could materially damage financial stability.”

Carney said green finance was an opportunity to boost financial stability while also tackling climate change and that more of the $100 trillion held by big global investment firms could be channelled into green bonds to help finance initiatives aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

Countries decoupling

There is a great deal of variation in progress towards decoupling around the world.

The World Resources Institute (WRI), a climate think-tank based in Washington DC, has released analysis showing which countries have already achieved decoupling, by comparing BP data on emissions to World Bank data on GDP.


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The BP data contains emissions statistics from 67 countries. Of these, 21 have succeeded in decreasing their emissions while growing their GDP in the period 2000 to 2014.

Image: World Resources Institute

According to WRI’s analysis, the US achieved the largest reduction in CO2, but it also emitted the most to begin with. Denmark achieved the largest reduction proportional to its starting emissions, cutting CO2 to 30% below 2000 levels.

A good start

Of course, most countries are not yet decoupling. Emissions continue to rise in much of Asia and the Middle East. From Turkey to India, enthusiasm for coal remains strong. India has plans to double its coal production. Australia has increased its coal exports fourfold to the point where they now account for around one billion tons of carbon dioxide a year.

But with the three largest emitters - China, the US and the EU - all showing evidence of decoupling, things are starting to look more positive.

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