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As world leaders in Paris scramble to reach a climate agreement aimed to mitigate the consequences of untamed greenhouse gas emissions, they have been dealt a rare dose of good news.
Scientists writing in the journal Nature Climate Change estimate that for the first time in the last 15 years, global carbon dioxide emissions have flatlined, and possibly even declined.
"It is difficult to overstate the significance of this development," said Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. "What it shows is that we are indeed now turning the corner in transition from a fossil fuel to renewable-driven global economy."
The study, which was the tenth of its kind published by this team of researchers, showed that CO2 emissions from the consumption of fossil fuel and cement production grew by a mere 0.6 percent in 2014, compared with 2.4 percent annual growth for the decade before.
"Our results are a welcome change from the trajectory of the last 15 years or so," said Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford and lead author on the study. "This is the first time we've seen a likely decline in the presence of strong global economic growth."
The data serve as an unexpected bright spot in a string of bad news.
This year, scientists estimated that the globe topped concentrations of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the first time in at least 800,000 years, and last month, scientists at the UK Met Office showed that the 2015 global mean temperature is now 1 degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, halfway to the 2C (3.6F) increase that the United Nations has warned could bring devastating consequences.
The reasons behind the slump in emissions, Jackson explained, is due largely to two factors: China has made a move away from coal, likely out of concerns for air quality, and renewable energy has expanded to the point where it is competing as a viable alternative to dirtier fossil fuels on the energy market.
With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, China accounts for more than a quarter of the world's green house gas emissions. Yesterday, as the study results were being announced in Paris, Beijing issued its first ever "red alert" for smog, which the research organization Berkeley Earth estimates kills 1.6 million people very year.
But the country also has great potential to contribute to an overall reduction of global CO2 emissions. As the report details, 58 percent of the increase in Chinese energy consumption between 2013 and 2014 came from non-fossil-fuel sources.
Currently, the country is the world's largest wind producer and, with the aid off incentives that have facilitated a shift away from coal, China is set to surpass Germany as the world's largest solar producer.
In the past year, the Asian giant installed 23 gigawatts (GW) of new wind capacity, and its overall solar capacity has jumped from 3.7 GW in 2004 to 178 GW in 2014.
For some climate experts, the report is not only encouraging, but it also serves to dispel the widespread notion, often used to justify inaction, that emission reductions necessitate economic decline. In the past, major emissions declines have been linked to period of economic retraction.
"It could suggest that there is a decoupling of emissions and economy growth, and if continued, it would be very, very significant," said Kelly Levin, a senior associate with the World Resources Institute. "This study underscores that that is possible."
But there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about these findings, says Jackson, not in the least because the globe continues to pump record amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Even if global emissions were truly peaking, which is yet to be seen, it would still take years until global emissions would decline substantially.
"We have to get close to zero emissions, when right now we are close to peak emissions," said Jackson. "This paper provides a turning of the corner in the near future, but we still have the whole downward track to get to zero emissions — that's the hard work.
The estimates published in Nature are also well ahead of the peak emissions targets set by countries participating in the Paris talks. China, for example, has committed to peak emissions around 2030, while Mexico is aiming to peak emissions by 2026.
"The question is whether or not this trend will be sustained," Levin said. "In context of Paris, it is how can an agreement send policy signals so that no-growth and an eventual decline is actually spurred by the agreement."
Her sentiments were echoed by Mann, who encouraged global leaders to "turn the corner even faster."
While it is unclear whether the stagnation of CO2 emissions over the past couple of years heralds the coming of peak emissions, Jackson believes that the study offers promise.
"Our hope is that this small piece of good news will motivate people to act quickly," he said. "It's human nature to be encouraged by progress."
Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4eva
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