This would be good news if it signalled a global trend, which would be a complete surprise. Stabilising carbon emissions is the goal of international climate policy which has proven elusive over the past decades. Common wisdom is that we will see many years of rising emissions globally before a plateau is in sight.
So what to make of this announcement? The IEA says the halt is due to a variety of factors:
The IEA attributes the halt in emissions growth to changing patterns of energy consumption in China and OECD countries. In China, 2014 saw greater generation of electricity from renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar, wind and less burning of coal. In OECD economies, recent efforts to promote more sustainable growth – including greater energy efficiency and more renewable energy – are producing the desired effect of decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions.No details of the analysis are provided, they are promised for a report due in June. The incoming executive director of IEA, Fatih Birol said:
"This is both a very welcome surprise and a significant one... It provides much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a global climate deal in Paris in December: for the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth."
The IEA is careful to point out that the stabilisation is not due to an economic crisis:
In the 40 years in which the IEA has been collecting data on carbon dioxide emissions, there have only been three times in which emissions have stood still or fallen compared to the previous year, and all were associated with global economic weakness: the early 1980's; 1992 and 2009. In 2014, however, the global economy expanded by 3 percent.
This is interpreted as a clear sign that carbon emissions and economic growth have become uncoupled. But two years don't make a trend. We have seen long and sometimes bitter debates about the global temperature trend over a decade or more, and about its significance. The emissions data might add another point of contention.
It is a potential bombshell. If emissions are stabilising in the absence of a global climate treaty such an undertaking would not be needed after all. On the other hand, diplomats and politicians might be persuaded to sign a deal which merely affirms what has been achieved, or what seems to be achievable with little effort.