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IEA says global carbon emissions stall

It's the first time in 40 years that carbon dioxide emissions have not risen

Global emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels did not rise last year.

This is the first time in 40 years that, in the absence of an economic downturn, emissions have not risen. It signals that efforts to combat climate change may have been more effective than initially thought.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that global emissions of carbon dioxide did not rise in 2014. They remained flat at 32.3 billion tonnes in 2014 from 2013 despite an expansion of 3% in the global economy. It could also indicate that the link between economic growth and rising carbon dioxide emissions may have finally been broken.

“This is both a welcome surprise and significant one … for the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth," says the IEA’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, recently named as the Paris-based agency’s next executive director.

There have only been three times in four decades when emissions fell or stopped rising, the agency said: after the oil price shock and US recession in the early 1980s; in 1992 after the collapse of the former Soviet Union; and in 2009 during the global financial crisis.

In each previous case, a fall in demand sparked production slowdowns at the factories and power plants that are a leading cause of carbon dioxide emissions, which have been expanding by an average 2.4% a year over the last decade.

Energy consumption shifts in China, the world’s biggest carbon polluter ahead of the US, were among the reasons emissions stalled last year, the IEA said in a statement.

Last year China, which consumes half the world’s coal – the most carbon polluting fossil fuel – burnt less of it and reported greater electricity generation from renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind.

Coal has driven its economic surge, but in 2014 coal burning fell by 1.6%, even as its economy grew 7.3%. Its huge fleet of coal plants is now working at only 54% of capacity, a 35-year low, according to CoalSwarm. "New renewables capacity exceeded new coal capacity in China in both 2013 and 2014," reported the US think tank. A cap on Chinese coal burning formed part of the agreement on climate change signed by the US and China last November.

In parallel, the electricity consumption growth rate has fallen from 10% a year to about 3-4% as China introduces energy efficiency standards for industry, shuttered older factories and steers away from the heavy manufacturing that has powered its economic expansion.

Elsewhere, countries in the OECD have started to decouple economic expansion from rises in emissions, as they install more renewable energy plants and set stricter standards for everything from car fuel economy to home appliance energy use.

Over the last five years, OECD countries’ economies expanded nearly 7% while their emissions dropped 4%, data from the IEA showed.

Birol said that the preliminary emissions data provides much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a global climate deal in Paris this December.

The summit in Paris is set to agree a deal to limit global emissions, blamed by a UN panel of climate scientists for triggering rising temperatures, increased flooding and higher sea levels.

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