China’s economy grew by 7.4% in 2014 compared with the year earlier, but the amount of coal the country burned for energy fell by 1.6%. Some have seen this as evidence that China’s investment in green energy has made tangible progress toward decoupling the link between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions.
Globally there is good news too. Despite predictions that the world’s economy grew by 3% last year, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels for energy was 32.3 billion tonnes—the same as in 2013. China’s burning less coal will have contributed to much of that rounding off of the world’s CO2 emissions.
What’s more, China’s added coal capacity has slowed in recent years, so much so that it has been overtaken by the rate at which China is adding renewable energy capacity.
But slowing the growth of CO2 emissions, in China and globally, will not be enough to stop runaway climate change, a tipping point at which our atmosphere could change unpredictably. To avoid reaching that point, scientists believe that we should avoid crossing a concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere of 400 parts per million. Before the industrial revolution, CO2 levels were at 280ppm; they have already since risen to 382ppm.
Much of China’s economy is still powered by coal, but if the data from last year proves economic growth can be accomplished without burning more coal, that’s one step toward avoiding potential runaway climate change. The next, and far harder step, remains to reduce CO2 emissions significantly, and globally.