Climate science rightly cautions against using short-term trends to explain broader phenomena, so it’s probably best to keep any yearly data in perspective. That said, the International Energy Agency, an independent inter-governmental organization, has offered an unusually optimistic finding.
For the first time in decades, global greenhouse gas emissions held steady in 2014 while the world economy continued to grow by 3 percent.
Broadly, that finding suggests that conventional wisdom linking economic growth to higher greenhouse emissions may be off base.
That news should reassure skeptics that the United States can meet ambitious emissions goals, announced on Tuesday in a plan submitted to the United Nations, without upending the national economy. The document pledges reductions of up to 28 percent over the next ten years using 2005 emissions levels as a baseline.
It’s a bold but entirely achievable goal, and could help push other countries to adopt — and stick to — similarly ambitious plans. Thirty nations accounting for more than half of global emissions also submitted carbon reduction plans this week. And plenty of industrialized countries are already well on their way to deep emissions cuts.
Greenhouse gas production in the United States and the Europe Union declined substantially last year even as economies mostly grew. Even China managed to bring emissions down by 1 percent while its economy grew by about 7 percent.
Indeed, China has moved with surprising speed in recent years to boost renewable and nuclear energy while reducing dependence on coal. China has been the world’s largest carbon dioxide polluter by total volume since 2007, when it took over that dubious title from the U.S. But China led the planet in renewable energy investment in 2014.
Here in the United States, emissions continue to drop largely because of higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards and the boom in natural gas production through fracking.
Federal standards established in 2012 require that all new personal vehicles meet increasingly strict fuel economy standards by 2025. Natural gas generally burns more cleanly and produces fewer greenhouse emissions than other energy sources like coal.
Of course, it’s important to note that Earth’s population still released a whopping 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere last year. And that total — while not an increase from the previous year — still holds the line at the global record level set in 2013.
Last year also happened to be the warmest one on record worldwide, breaking the previous record set in 2010, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was the tenth record year in less than two decades.
So climate change is still very much an issue worthy of substantial global attention. And lowering — rather than maintaining — greenhouse gas emissions levels must be a key factor in the solution.
But data suggesting that sensible carbon action need not harm economic growth are encouraging. A prosperous, sustainable planet depends on business and environmental communities working together.