2014: The year we first cut the link between emissions and economic growth?

Keith Gaby

For much of the last half-century, global economic growth was linked to increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

That doctrine was called into question last week when the Energy Information Administration reported that the global economy expanded by 3 percent in 2014, while emissions of carbon dioxide from the energy sector held steady at 2013 levels.

The news was surprising to us. Here at Environmental Defense Fund, we spent much of the past year analyzing what it would take to see emissions stabilize and begin to decline within the next five years.

Too good to be true?

We concluded that turning the corner by 2020 is an ambitious but achievable goal, requiring substantial reductions of carbon dioxide and methane emissions, and that there’s a great deal of hard work to be done by a lot of people around the world in order to accomplish it.

Now comes the IEA saying we are already there? It seems too good to be true. It’s certainly too soon to know if this trend can be sustained.

It will take time to develop a deeper understanding of what’s happening with emissions. 

We need to know whether overall greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors - including methane leaked from the natural gas supply chain, nitrous oxides from soils, and other potent industrial gases - have similarly leveled off

But still, it’s good news and a sign that economic growth is possible without rising rates of CO2 emissions. At EDF, we’ve long believed that economic growth and environmental stewardship can, in fact, go hand-in-hand. The IEA’s report suggests we’re onto something.

China stands out

One of the largest contributions to the apparent 2014 emissions flat-lining, according to IEA, comes from China.

“The Chinese are bullish on their ability to tackle big challenges, given what’s been accomplished in modern China,” Dan Dudek, our China program lead, noted in a recent post. “With this perspective, they also think that environmental problems can be solved.”

Indeed, China is planning to ramp up efforts in 2015 and beyond, including imposing stiffer fines for polluters, embracing cap-and-trade, and a national carbon trading market.

Let’s use the evidence that clean and prosperous go together to increase our efforts, from local to global, to keep the momentum going. If we’ve seen emissions level off, the next step is to see them decline.

That sounds audacious, but until now, many would have said the same thing about economic growth sans increased carbon emissions. For the first time in 40 years, there’s indication that a halt or downturn in emissions was the result of efforts to mitigate climate change - rather than the result of a global economic slow-down.

“The window of opportunity is open,” EDF President Fred Krupp likes to say. “To capitalize on that and turn the corner once and for all, there are four big levers we need to pull now.”