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Sustainable Energy

Carbon Dioxide Emissions Are Flat for a Third Year Running, but the Economy Continues to Grow

Further proof that economic growth doesn’t require an increase in greenhouse gases.

Repeat after us: reducing the use of fossil fuels won’t necessarily ruin the economy.

New figures published by the International Energy Agency show that for the third year in a row, carbon dioxide emissions have not grown. Global emissions from the energy sector totaled 32.1 billion tons in 2016, the same as 2015 and 2014. Meanwhile, the global economy has grown by 3.1 percent, continuing a trend of decoupling that suggests society can prosper while reducing its reliance on dirty energy. 

The biggest success? Actually, America, whose carbon dioxide emissions fell by 3 percent while the economy managed to grow by 1.6 percent. That’s at least partly down to the fact that renewable energy, and in particular solar, enjoyed a roaring 2016 in the U.S. Elsewhere, China’s carbon dioxide emissions declined by 1 percent, while its economy expanded 6.7 percent. It, too, has been making bold commitments to the increased use of solar.

Reductions in the two countries, combined with flat-lining in Europe, produced enough slack to offset the rest of the world’s increased emissions, so the needle didn't tip toward an overall rise. That, of course, raises a genuine concern: What happens as developing economies, such as India, rapidly grow and burn readily available fossil fuels?

While we may certainly hope that emissions have peaked, without the correct investment and guidance emerging economies will have trouble embracing clean energy fast enough. Initiatives such as the the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, established so that rich countries could help poorer nations prepare for climate change, may help overcome that problem—but given the Trump administration plans to cut Americas weighty contributions to that scheme, its impact may struggle to be felt.

Still, the figures do show that the world’s two largest energy users and carbon emitters are capable of balancing economic growth with emissions reductions. That is, at least, a beacon of hope to other countries around the world.

(Read more: “Solar Installations Soared in the U.S. in 2016,” “Trump’s Budget Would Mean Catastrophe for U.S. Climate Programs,” “Have Global CO2 Emissions Peaked?”)

Hear more about clean energy at EmTech MIT 2017.

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