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The global economy is growing, but carbon emissions aren't

Have we reached the point where environmental impacts are "decoupled" from economic growth?

Carbon emissions stayed flat for the second year in a row in 2015, despite continued growth in the global economy, according to preliminary data recently released by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The numbers add to the growing pile of evidence to suggest economic growth has decoupled from greenhouse gas emission levels.

In 2015, global emissions stood at 32.1 billion tonnes, the IEA said — a figure that has remained essentially flat since 2013, despite the global economy growing by more than 3 percent. The latest analysis seems to confirm December predictions that the world could be starting to "bend the curve" of global emissions.

"The new figures confirm last year's surprising but welcome news: We have now seen two straight years of greenhouse gas emissions decoupling from economic growth," IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in a statement. "Coming just a few months after the landmark COP21 agreement in Paris, this is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change."

According to the IEA, wide-scale deployment of renewable energy played a key role in curbing emissions growth, with renewables accounting for around 90 percent of new electricity generation in 2015. The data is a sign that the record-breaking levels of investment in clean energy are beginning to bear fruit in terms of global emissions.

The flat growth in emissions was largely driven by the world's largest emitters, China and the U.S., posting declines in energy-related carbon emissions in 2015. In China emissions fell by 1.5 percent on the back of falling coal use and rising levels of hydroelectricity and wind power, while in the U.S. emissions dropped by 2 percent as the electricity industry switched from coal to natural gas generation, the IEA said.

The trend, first highlighted in the IEA's 2014 data, marks the first time over the past four decades that emissions have stayed flat or fallen during periods of economic growth — all other incidences of stalling emissions have been linked with global economic weakness.

The preliminary data from the IEA comes ahead of the publication of the annual World Energy Outlook's special report in June, which will provide more data on global emissions alongside analysis of the role of the energy sector in global air pollution.

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