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Finally, some good news for the climate: Global carbon emissions stayed flat in 2016

An airplane flies overhead while steam is emitted from a coal-fired power plant in Beijing in 2014. (Andy Wong/AP)

This week has carried tough blows for the environment, in the form of a White House budget proposal that would slash funding for a variety of climate, energy and environment-related federal programs. But at least one positive bit of news has also surfaced.

A new report from the International Energy Administration has found that global carbon emissions remained flat for the third year in a row, even while the global economy continued to grow. And while it may still be too early to tell whether emissions are peaking for good now, or whether they will resume increasing in years to come, the findings reinforce the growing sense that it’s now possible to enjoy economic growth without an increase in carbon dioxide output. 

According to the report, carbon emissions from the energy sector topped out at about 32.1 billion tons last year, about the same as in 2015 and 2014. On the other hand, the global economy grew by another 3.1 percent, as it has also done over the past few years. These findings were also projected late last year by a group of scientists known as the Global Carbon Project, and are now confirmed by the IEA.

This is good news for global climate efforts. Until now, economic growth has largely been coupled with an increase in industrial activity and energy intensity and its associated greenhouse-gas emissions. But the report suggests that the planet may be starting to break this cycle.  

The flatline in global emissions is essentially the product of increases in carbon output in some countries and decreases in others. The report notes that China and the United States — the world’s top two largest greenhouse-gas emitters — both saw a drop in their carbon dioxide emissions. In the United States, emissions fell by 3 percent and the economy grew by 1.6 percent, while in China, emissions fell by 1.6 percent and the economy grew by a whopping 6.7 percent.

Additionally, emissions in Europe — another top global emitter — remained flat. Together, these developments were able to offset increases in emissions throughout much of the rest of the world. The continued expansion of natural gas and renewable energy and the decline of coal are likely largely to thank in these cases. The report notes that renewable energy sources accounted for half of all global electricity demand growth in 2016.  

While this is all good news for the climate, it’s still a baby step in the grand scheme of things. It’s important to note that flat emissions don’t mean no emissions — billions of tons of greenhouse gases still went into the atmosphere in 2016 and are on track to continue in that trend for years to come. And as long as carbon is being emitted, the planet will continue to warm.

In fact, another recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are rising at the fastest rate ever recorded. And that’s despite the recent flatline in global emissions.

Meanwhile, participants in the Paris Agreement are still working to keep global warming within a maximum of 2 degrees of their pre-industrial levels — but the clock is ticking. As we’ve reported in the past, the planet can only afford to emit about 800 billion more tons of carbon dioxide if we want to have at least a two-thirds chance of meeting that goal.  

This means that all the environmental cuts proposed by President Trump’s administration this week are more relevant than ever. Included in the budget proposal are cuts to numerous climate and clean energy programs, from basic climate science to research on renewables and energy storage to long-standing energy-efficiency programs. The administration has also vowed to eliminate the Clean Power Plan, the flagship effort of former president Barack Obama’s administration to reduce emissions from the power sector.  

All this is in keeping with Trump’s promise to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. It’s a threat that he could well accomplish by simply failing to follow through on any more federal climate action in the U.S., which is what the preliminary budget would seem to indicate. Experts have warned that such action — or inaction — could be disastrous for global climate efforts.  

Although global emissions are flat for another year, and that is indeed a good thing, the future of climate action in the United States and around the world is increasingly uncertain — and whether the trend carries through into 2017 remains to be seen.