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The big challenge in attempting to combat climate change is how to fuel national economies without burning fossil fuels. It's no easy task: Rich nations have been doing it since the Industrial Revolution 150 years ago, and developing nations — eager to lift their poor populations into a more prosperous (and consuming) middle class — rely heavily on cheap sources of coal and natural gas.
The stakes are high — about $2.5 trillion, according to the first economic model of potential financial losses if temperature rise isn't kept within 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) compared to pre-Industrial Age levels.
Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable sources is one goal that some, like author and activist Naomi Klein, say isn't likely without abolishing capitalism. Others, usually of a libertarian bent or from the scientifically enlightened side of America's Republican party, suggest it isn't necessary because it's more cost effective to wait for some whiz-bang technological breakthrough, rather than an expensive overturning of the established energy order.
Data from the World Resources Institute (WRI), however, shows that the reigning economic systems are indeed growing their economies and curbing — sometimes significantly — the amount of planet-warming pollution their transportation systems, power plants, and agricultural methods are spewing into the atmosphere.
Twenty-one nations, including the United States, Germany, and France, saw economic growth since 2000, while managing to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
WRI's data adds weight to estimates provided last month by the International Energy Agency, the world's lead energy analyst, which showed global GHG emissions remained flat for two years running.
Nate Aden, a research fellow at WRI, said there was no single formula or policy measure that explained how countries achieved economic growth and reductions in emissions.
"Sweden, for example, implemented ambitious policies including carbon taxes that supported its decoupling," he said in a blog post. "Denmark's rapid increase in renewable energy reduced emissions while stimulating local production."
He added, "More than 90 percent of the countries that decoupled gross domestic product (GDP) and GHG emissions between 2000 and 2014 reduced the industrial sector share of their economies."
The United States, according to WRI, was the largest country to see multiple consecutive years of economic growth, while reducing emissions.
"From 2010 to 2012, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions declined by 6 percent (from 5.58 to 5.23 billion metric tons), while GDP grew by 4 percent (from $14.8 to $15.4 trillion)," Aden said.
Deindustrialization, which has been occurring for decades in advanced economies, has accelerated in developing nations, Aden told VICE News. More energy efficient factories and workers producing more goods for each hour of their labor also helped to suppress levels of carbon pollution.
But as much as the graph explains the success that some nations are having in transitioning to cleaner economies, it also highlights how crucial developing counties are in the fight against climate change. China, the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, and India, which ranks third behind the United States, are absent from the graph.
"We need to decouple GDP and GHG emissions in China and India to have any chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures this century," Aden said. "The good news is that China appears to be starting to turn the corner on their carbon emissions. Countries' signing of the Paris Agreement later this month will provide further support for accelerated decoupling."
Ranping Song, a China specialist at WRI, said that China's recent commitment to peak its CO2 emissions around 2030 meant it had "essentially committed to decouple economy growth and carbon emissions" and that recent statistics suggest some early sign of success.
But, he added, "There are multiple challenges to sustain the trend."
Energy consumption is projected to grow as China's massive building boom continues and its transportation networks continue to grow.
"The country will need to develop innovative, efficient, and advanced manufacturing, grow its service economy, and shift to less resource intensive consumption patterns, all of which are reflected in the 13th Five-Year-Plan," Son said.
Follow Robert S. Eshelman on Twitter: @RobertSEshelman
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