Last Year Was Proof That the Economy Can Grow Without Emitting More Greenhouse Gases

We may have finally severed the tight bond between global economic growth and increased carbon emissions.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) announced late last week that in 2014 the global economy grew while carbon emissions didn’t. It’s the first time in 40 years that this has happened—in the past, any pause or reduction in carbon emissions was linked to an economic downturn (one each in the early 1980s, 1992, and 2009). But this time, while the economy grew by 3%, global emissions of carbon dioxide stood still at 32.3 billion tons.

A solar farm in the United States

It’s due in part to China’s shift to renewable energy sources, like solar, wind, and hydropower. The 34 OECD member countries have also become more energy-efficient.

Here’s Chris Mooney, writing for the Washington Post:

Another factor, noted Robert Stavins, a leading environmental economist at the Harvard Kennedy School, is that in the U.S. transportation sector, cars are also more efficient (thanks to CAFE standards) even as a number of countries (or U.S. states, in the case of California) are pricing carbon and thus using economic forces to make it more costly to release into the atmosphere.

And there’s yet another key factor, according to Stavins — the natural gas boom in the United States brought on by fracking. “This has, in turn, led to significant increases in dispatch of gas-fired electricity generation, relative to dispatch of coal-fired generation, as well as increased investment in new gas-fired electric generation capacity, and cessation of investment in new coal generation in the United States,” he said.

The IEA will release a full report in June to help policymakers capitalize on this positive change. The outlook may seem sunny, but this trend could very well disappear next year. Plus, the gains from increased natural gas usage may be an illusion—leaky distribution systems may be spewing more of the potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than previously thought. Still, it’s possible that advances like negative-carbon source power plants and hydrogen fuel could keep us moving in the right direction.