The single biggest factor appears to be a marked reduction in China’s use of coal to make electricity. But other countries, from North America to Europe, also emitted less carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning as governments and consumers shifted to cleaner fuels and more fuel-efficient vehicles, according to a report published Monday in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change.
“We can’t yet call it a long-term trend but we do see really encouraging signs over the last couple of years,” said co-author Robert B. Jackson, the Douglas Provostial professor at Stanford University’s School of Earth Sciences. “From the data for 2015, it looks like we could even see a decline in fossil-fuel emissions this year.”
The authors cautioned that this year’s “pause” is not likely to last, as developing economies in India and elsewhere around the world are projected to increase emissions from coal and oil in the coming decades. But those higher emissions are beginning to be offset elsewhere as more people turn to the sun and wind to provide electricity, the analysis said, suggesting that a “peak” in the world’s output of greenhouse gases could be achieved in the foreseeable future.
“We have shown that the high growth rates in global CO2 emissions prevalent since the early 2000s ceased in the past two years, at least temporarily, despite robust growth in global economic activity,” the report stated. “Underlying trends in some emerging and established economies suggest that structural changes in their economies and energy systems are already leading to emissions reductions.”
The report is likely to provide a psychological lift to negotiators at this week’s climate talks in Paris, where diplomats from more than 190 countries are seeking to forge a global agreement on reducing emissions of from fossil-fuel burning. The goal is to prevent global temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over historical averages. Scientists warn that without substantial cuts in emissions, the planet will likely experience much higher temperature increases that could endanger humans and natural ecosystems for centuries to come.
Todd Stern, the diplomat who heads the U.S. delegation at the Paris talks, welcomed the new figures as “good news” but said the report was not likely to be a factor in the ongoing negotiations. “At this point in a negotiation like this, people are pretty focused on the business at hand,” he said.
Global carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning have been growing at an annual rate of 2.4 percent over the past decade, contributing to steadily rising levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Earlier this year, U.S. and U.N. scientists reported that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per billion over most of the Northern Hemisphere, compared to about 280 ppm in the mid-18th Century, before the start of the Industrial Revolution.
The newly compiled data shows a much smaller annual increase in 2014 — a net gain of 0.6 percent. And preliminary figures point to a slight decrease in 2015, according to the report in Nature Climate Change.
The biggest single factor was a sharp decline in emissions in China, where carbon pollution fell by nearly 4 percent, reflecting a drop in coal consumption within the country, the report said. Reflecting official worries about air pollution and climate change, China has become the world’s leading investor in clean-energy technology, building massive wind and solar energy projects while also continuing to invest in traditional energy sources to fuel its growing economy.
Emissions have been steadily declining in European Union states, also largely because of a shift to renewable energy, as well as in the United States, where carbon pollution has fallen by an average 1.4 percent annually over recent years.
Pollution levels meanwhile continue to rise in India, which is seeking to rapidly expand its electrical grid to service its 1.3 billion citizens. At current rates, India’s total emissions from fossil fuels will match that of the entire European Union in two to three years, the report said.
Because of such rising emissions from the developing world, “it is unlikely that emissions have peaked for good,” said co-author Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Center at Britain’s University of East Anglia.
“Energy needs for growing economies still rely primarily on coal, and emissions decreases in some industrial countries are still modest, at best,” Le Quéré said. “Global emissions need to decrease to near zero to achieve climate stabilization. We are still emitting massive amounts of CO2 annually – around 36 billion tons from fossil fuels and industry alone. There is a long way to near zero emissions.”
Chris Mooney contributed from Paris.