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The 35 countries cutting the link between economic growth and emissions

Posted on 8 April 2016 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Carbon Brief

Is it possible to reduce emissions while growing the economy? This is a major question for policymakers hoping to combat climate change.

Historically, emissions have increased as the global economy has developed. More people have access to electricity and transport in richer countries. In many cases, development has also been associated with an increase in carbon-intensive industrial activity.

This has led to a debate often conducted on ideological grounds.

Some, including scientist Kevin Anderson and author Naomi Klein, argue against certain types of economic growth in the interests of shrinking emissions.

But in a world where 836m people still live in extreme poverty, and people in the developed world enjoy all the benefits that a large economy brings, shrinking the economy in the name of climate change is a tough political sell.

David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister, has said that there is no need for a “trade-off” between economic growth and reducing carbon emissions. US president Barack Obama has expressed a similar sentiment.

Recent real world data on the economy and emissions suggests they could be right. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that global emissions stalled in both 2014 and2015, even as the economy grew.

Regional variation

However, it is not enough for global emissions to stall. In the interests of maintaining a planet where global temperature rise stays well below 2C, and preferably below 1.5C, the UN has said that emissions must fall to net zero in the second half of the century.

The IEA’s analysis masks considerable regional variety. The global stalling of emissions in 2014 and 2015 is the product of rising emissions in most countries, accompanied by a reduction in others.

Most of the countries that have cut their emissions have also grown their economies. This means that, for a handful of nations, the process of decoupling emissions from the economy is well underway.

The World Resources Institute, a climate think-tank based in Washington DC, has today released analysis showing which countries have achieved this decoupling, by comparing BP data on emissions to World Bank data on GDP.

The BP data contains emissions statistics from 67 countries. Of these, 21 have succeeded in decreasing their emissions while growing their GDP in the period 2000 to 2014.

Nate Aden, WRI’s research fellow who carried out the analysis, tells Carbon Brief that the findings showed a “positive story of emerging transformation”. He adds that he focused on the 14-year period “to ensure that the observed decoupling is sustained and significant”.

According to WRI’s analysis, the US achieved the largest reduction in CO2, but this is largely because it emitted so much CO2 to begin with. Denmark achieved the largest reduction proportional to its starting emissions, cutting CO2 to 30% below 2000 levels — “though 17m tonnes of CO2 is a drop in the bucket globally,” Aden adds.

It’s worth noting that the choice of time period can have a large impact. For instance, US emissions increased between 1990 and 2014.

The aim for these countries now is to maintain and accelerate this decoupling. Even theclimate pledges that countries have made for the next decade will only succeed in limiting global temperature rise to around 2.7C, according to analysis by Climate Action Tracker. The UN is expected to update its own analysis of these pledges imminently.

Wider analysis

Carbon Brief has extended the WRI analysis to consider all the countries in the world, not just the 67 included in BP’s statistics. Like WRI, this extended analysis looks at changes in real GDP using data from the World Bank. Carbon Brief used real GDP data in each country’s local currency.

Our analysis used CO2 emissions data for 216 countries from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC). These countries include the likes of the tiny island of Réunion; there are only 195 UN member states.

Some 45 of these nations cut their CO2 emissions between 2000 and 2014. Only 35 increased their real GDP at the same time (table, below). Another four cut emissions while their GDP shrank. No GDP data was available for the remaining six countries.

Singapore achieved the largest emissions reduction in percentage terms, with 46%. Denmark’s 33% was next best and the Ukraine came third with 32%.

Looking at carbon intensity — the CO2 emissions per unit of GDP — Macao, Singapore and Uzbekistan made the largest improvements

The UK cut its emissions by 128m tonnes of CO2 between 2000 and 2014, a 24% reduction. At the same time, its real GDP grew by 27%. As a result, its carbon intensity dropped 40%. This was the biggest improvement among major economies that decoupled their emissions from growth, between 2000 and 2014.

Consumption-based emissions

Carbon Brief has created two additional tables, for reference. These include all countries with data available, not just the countries whose GDP grew while CO2 emissions fell.

The first table shows data for 2000-2014 using territorial emissions. The second table shows data for 2000-2013 using consumption-based CO2. Follow the links to view the tables. Both are based on CDIAC calculations for the Global Carbon Project.

Only 21 countries decoupled their economic growth from consumption-based CO2 emissions, between 2000 and 2013. This suggests some countries were only able to decouple by “offshoring” some of their emissions to other countries.

However, major economies including the UK, US, France and Germany still decoupled, even after accounting for the CO2 contained in imported goods. Carbon Brief has looked at the UK’s consumption-based emissions in more detail.

Canada and Poland were among those that failed to decouple their consumption-based CO2 emissions from economic growth.

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. In a paper last year, as reported on by George Monbiot, it's clear that no decoupling has taken place. Indeed, claiming that an economy has "decoupled", as this post does, implies that there is no link between emissions and an economy, which would require far more evidence than mentioned here.The initial estimates by the IEA cover energy emissions only (and not, e.g. land use changes and cement manufacture). So, even if the estimate is true (and I don't think there is consistent stats on GDP), it doesn't prove that decoupling has happened or is in progress. It is far more likely that emissions are underestimated (which is certainly partly true, as they don't include some emissions) or that economic growth is overestimated.
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  2. These stats don’t include emissions from bioenergy (as it is often calculated as having 0 – emissions, which it isn’t). Also methane emissions are missing. Shipping and aviation I believe are also on the rise still. Emissions from agriculture are not here either. I’m afraid decoupling is much more difficult than these reports let us think.

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  3. This article seems also too optimistic. As might be seen in Jessie Henshaw´s comment here:

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  4. TonyW, Monbiot has consistently argued that we need to become less materialistic / use less resources to fight global warming (and other environmental problems). He has dismissed the possibility that efficiency, miniaturization, and technology change (e.g. solar and wind replacing fossil fuels) can achieve significant results alone - despite mounting evidence to the contrary. IMO this represents a pre-existing bias in his thinking. Indeed, he even admits as much in one article. Also note, that the 'offshoring' argument (that countries has just shifted their manufacturing and thus emissions to other countries) is specifically addressed in the article above and shown to be not the case for a majority of the countries with declining emissions and increasing GDP.

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  5. TonyW,

    I agree that the measure of CO2 emissions and GDP are just measures and the 'uncertainty ranges' of those measurements need to be evaluated and be part of the reporting.

    Actually, a measure that would be more meaningful would be the true measure of the amount of truly known to be sustainable activity in an economy. There are many other damaging unsustainable activities that cannot be part of a lasting better future for all of humanity. Replacing activity that increased CO2 with other unsustainable or damaging activity is not 'advancement', no matter how impressive the newer consumer toys for the more fortunate appear to be.

    Many things that only a portion of humanity can get a reward from, other than CO2 emissions, are creating problems for furture generations (and others in the current generation). It is simply unacceptable that 'leaders' can still claim that their evaluation shows it is OK to make bigger problems for a furture generation because to not make those bigger problems that others will face would cost 'their portion of current day humanity' more than the impacts on future generations (as they figure it).

    Putting that into business terms, a claim that the cost to future generations is justified is like a business developing profitability by doing something that actually damages the profitability of other businesses, but because it controls the rule making it gets to declare that they will only limit the damage they do to the other businesses to the amount of profit they believe they would have to give up to stop damaging the profitability of the other companies, then cooking the books to always show that their potential lost profit is always more than the damage they cause (as they figure it).

    There is simply no justification for knowingly continuing to create larger problems that others will have to deal with. Clearly a focus on profitibaility and popularity as justification for things can create impressions of acceptability. The ability of 'people who are not very interested in advancing humanity to a lasting better future for all (because many current day people are more easily impressed by the present they hope to get for themselves)' to create and maintain misleading impressions is a fatal flaw of the system, maybe even the greatest weapon of mass destruction humans have ever created.

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  6. Economic growth is largely the increase in the goods and services produced by technical systems - by using up limted crustal natural material resources without this ecological cost being taken into account. It is an unsustainable processs so economic contraction is bound to occur in the near future.

    Measures to cope with the irreversible climate disruption and ocean acidification and warming should be based on understanding on what is really happening. The ability to mount remedial activites will be limited by what infrastructure services are still available.

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  7. Denisaf, part of the problem is that for many people of power in the business world, the notion that what they call "commodities" are finite earns nothing but contempt. It's not that they argue that they are not finite, they simply don't see it as a problem.  

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  8. The blog post says: 'The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that global emissions stalled in both 2014 and 2015'. Many environmentalists regards this as good news. I do not. With future emissions as high as they were in 2014 the carbon budget for one and a half degree warming will be exhausted in six years, and the budget for two degrees in a little more than twenty years. With this perspective it is not good news that the emissions in 2015 were the same as they were in 2014.

    The table in the blog post shows how the CO2 intensity has changed in percent, and it links to a document that shows the same for territorial CO2 emissions. I agree with the conversion formula that calculates the change in CO2 intensity based on the change in CO2 emissions and in GDP that is used here. But the blog post links to another document that shows the same for consumption based CO2 emissions, and I do not understand the conversion in that document. Let me use China as an example. The first document says that their GDP increased with 270.1%, and that their territorial emissions increased with 184.5%. This gives a 23.1% reduction in the CO2 intensity, as stated by the document. The other document uses the same increase in GDP, and it uses 174.8% increase in the consumption based CO2 emissions. This should give a greater reduction in the CO2 intensity than for the territorial CO2 emissions, but the document says that the reduction is 20.4%, i.e. smaller. Using the same formula as for the territorial emissions I calculate the reduction to be 25.7%. Do the two documents apply different formulas for the CO2 intensity, or have I missed something ?

    The SkS post is a re-post from Carbon Brief. In the discussion following that post Simon Evans explains how the change in carbon intensity is calculated. I have checked that the formula I am using may be derived from his explanation.

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