Surprise! Economy speeds up, pollution stalls

carbon emissions
Renewable energy sources such as wind power contributed to a halt in global emissions growth in 2014.

Here's a surprise: The world economy sped up last year but the volume of dirty gases pumped into the air didn't budge.

Global emissions of carbon dioxide stalled in 2014, according to the International Energy Association, marking the first time in four decades that economic growth has not resulted in more greenhouse gases.

The preliminary data released Friday indicate that efforts to address climate change around the world may be having a greater impact than previously thought.

Carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil for energy. Increased levels of those gases contribute to global warming.

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Emissions stopped growing during three periods of economic stress in the last 40 years: in the early 1980s following an oil price shock; in 1992 after the break up of the Soviet Union; and during the financial crisis in 2009.

But that wasn't the case last year. Global economic growth picked up pace slightly to 3.3% in 2014, according to the IMF, while the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere remained at 2013 levels of 32.3 billion tonnes.

"This is both a very welcome surprise and a significant one," said IEA chief economist Fatih Birol. "For the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth," he said.

The halt in emissions growth reflected changing patterns of energy consumption in China, including using less coal. The world's biggest polluter also relied more heavily on renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind to generate electricity.

Air pollution has slashed the average life expectancy in China and dirty air has driven foreign executives out of the country.

Developed countries also reduced their emissions in 2014. The IEA said recent efforts to promote more sustainable growth -- such as improved energy efficiency and the use of renewables -- have helped weaken the link between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris-based agency, which monitors energy market trends for the world's richest nations, will publish full details of its findings in June.

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