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Charts: The extraordinary decoupling between economic growth and carbon pollution is happening

People walk on a street past a power plant's cooling tower in China.
Power to the people.
  • Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Cassie writes about the world of work.

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

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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