Earth's industrial carbon dioxide emissions are on pace to plateau this year, according to new projections, and they might even decline. On top of 2014's relatively small increase in CO2 output, this surprising shift is raising hopes that an explosive era of greenhouse gas emissions may finally be winding down.
For most of the past 15 years, CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels increased by an average of 2.4 percent annually. But researchers from the University of East Anglia and the Global Carbon Project report that CO2 output grew by just 0.6 percent in 2014. And, more importantly, they say it may actually decline 0.6 percent in 2015.
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Until now, global CO2 emissions have only fallen during economic downturns, like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 2008 financial crisis. But if these new forecasts hold true, 2015 would mark the first modern dip in CO2 emissions while the global economy is growing. It may not represent a true "carbon peak" — even the study's authors say emissions will likely rise again — but it does offer timely evidence that economic prosperity and ecological responsibility aren't mutually exclusive.
World leaders and diplomats are currently in Paris for major U.N. climate talks, which are meant to produce a new worldwide treaty for reining in CO2 emissions. The summit was already expected to succeed where many others have failed, but this kind of reminder about the economics of CO2 cuts can only help matters.
"We have broken the old arguments for inaction," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech on the summit's opening day on Nov. 30. "We have proved that strong economic growth and a safer environment no longer have to conflict with one another; they can work in concert with one another."
Published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the new findings are attributed largely to China, whose ranking as the No. 1 net emitter of CO2 puts it in a unique position to influence global emissions trends. "China is trying to deal massively with its air pollution problem," study co-author Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, tells Nature News. "And its renewables are growing very fast."
There are still uncertainties about China's self-reported CO2 data, highlighted last month by news that China has been burning up to 17 percent more coal per year than its government had previously stated. Le Quéré says her research team factored China's revised data into their new analysis, but she acknowledges that more transparency is needed in reporting of national CO2 emissions.
"We don't have the capacity to check the energy reports of the countries," she says. "We have to rely on the countries to tell us what types of coal they use and how clean it is. If the reporting was systematic, it would be wonderful."
That kind of transparency is one goal of the Paris talks — formally known as COP21, short for "Conference of Parties" — where diplomats are working on ways to track and verify each country's emissions. But in the meantime, based on China's own data plus ongoing economic trends, the new study projects Chinese CO2 emissions alone will decrease by nearly 4 percent in 2015. After long resisting the idea of CO2 limits, China recently pledged that its emissions will peak by 2030.
Some have suggested the 2015 data may mean global CO2 emissions have already peaked, thus kicking off a new, downward trend in the main gas responsible for man-made climate change. But many experts doubt that, pointing out not only that Chinese emissions could rise again, but also that emissions from India and other developing countries will likely offset China's progress at some point.
"Emissions in India are at the same level as China in the 1990s," climate analyst Glen P. Peters tells the New York Times, adding that India "could actually dominate the global growth in the way that China has done in the past."
The new study also doesn't fully account for some man-made sources of CO2, namely those from deforestation — an especially big problem this year due to huge peat fires linked to land clearing in Indonesia. But in the long-running, often-gridlocked effort to curb climate change, any sign that humans are cutting back industrial CO2 emissions without sacrificing economic growth is reason for optimism, the researchers argue.
"Time will tell whether this surprising interruption in emissions growth is transitory or a first step toward emissions stabilization," they write. "In either case, the trend is a welcome change from the historical coupling of CO2 emissions with economic growth and should be strengthened through efforts at the Paris COP and beyond."