Social Channels


Additional Options

Date Range

Receive a Daily or Weekly summary of the most important articles direct to your inbox, just enter your email below:

Macau at Night
© Imagemore Co., Ltd./Corbis
5 April 2016 14:28

The 35 countries cutting the link between economic growth and emissions

Carbon Brief Staff

Multiple Authors

PolicyThe 35 countries cutting the link between economic growth and emissions

Is it possible to reduce emissions while growing the economy? This is a major question for policymakers hoping to combat climate change.

Historically, emissions have increased as the global economy has developed. More people have access to electricity and transport in richer countries. In many cases, development has also been associated with an increase in carbon-intensive industrial activity.

This has led to a debate often conducted on ideological grounds.

Some, including scientist Kevin Anderson and author Naomi Klein, argue against certain types of economic growth in the interests of shrinking emissions.

But in a world where 836m people still live in extreme poverty, and people in the developed world enjoy all the benefits that a large economy brings, shrinking the economy in the name of climate change is a tough political sell.

David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister, has said that there is no need for a “trade-off” between economic growth and reducing carbon emissions. US president Barack Obama has expressed a similar sentiment.

Recent real world data on the economy and emissions suggests they could be right. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that global emissions stalled in both 2014 and 2015, even as the economy grew.

Regional variation

However, it is not enough for global emissions to stall. In the interests of maintaining a planet where global temperature rise stays well below 2C, and preferably below 1.5C, the UN has said that emissions must fall to net zero in the second half of the century.

The IEA’s analysis masks considerable regional variety. The global stalling of emissions in 2014 and 2015 is the product of rising emissions in most countries, accompanied by a reduction in others.

Most of the countries that have cut their emissions have also grown their economies. This means that, for a handful of nations, the process of decoupling emissions from the economy is well underway.

The World Resources Institute, a climate think-tank based in Washington DC, has today released analysis showing which countries have achieved this decoupling, by comparing BP data on emissions to World Bank data on GDP.

The BP data contains emissions statistics from 67 countries. Of these, 21 have succeeded in decreasing their emissions while growing their GDP in the period 2000 to 2014.

Nate Aden, WRI’s research fellow who carried out the analysis, tells Carbon Brief that the findings showed a “positive story of emerging transformation”. He adds that he focused on the 14-year period “to ensure that the observed decoupling is sustained and significant”.

According to WRI’s analysis, the US achieved the largest reduction in CO2, but this is largely because it emitted so much CO2 to begin with. Denmark achieved the largest reduction proportional to its starting emissions, cutting CO2 to 30% below 2000 levels — “though 17m tonnes of CO2 is a drop in the bucket globally,” Aden adds.

It’s worth noting that the choice of time period can have a large impact. For instance, US emissions increased between 1990 and 2014.

The aim for these countries now is to maintain and accelerate this decoupling. Even the climate pledges that countries have made for the next decade will only succeed in limiting global temperature rise to around 2.7C, according to analysis by Climate Action Tracker. The UN is expected to update its own analysis of these pledges imminently.

Wider analysis

Carbon Brief has extended the WRI analysis to consider all the countries in the world, not just the 67 included in BP’s statistics. Like WRI, this extended analysis looks at changes in real GDP using data from the World Bank. Carbon Brief used real GDP data in each country’s local currency.

Our analysis used CO2 emissions data for 216 countries from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC). These countries include the likes of the tiny island of Réunion; there are only 195 UN member states.

Some 45 of these nations cut their CO2 emissions between 2000 and 2014. Only 35 increased their real GDP at the same time (table, below). Another four cut emissions while their GDP shrank. No GDP data was available for the remaining six countries.

Singapore achieved the largest emissions reduction in percentage terms, with 46%. Denmark’s 33% was next best and the Ukraine came third with 32%.

Looking at carbon intensity — the CO2 emissions per unit of GDP — Macao, Singapore and Uzbekistan made the largest improvements

The UK cut its emissions by 128m tonnes of CO2 between 2000 and 2014, a 24% reduction. At the same time, its real GDP grew by 27%. As a result, its carbon intensity dropped 40%. This was the biggest improvement among major economies that decoupled their emissions from growth, between 2000 and 2014.

Consumption-based emissions

Carbon Brief has created two additional tables, for reference. These include all countries with data available, not just the countries whose GDP grew while CO2 emissions fell.

The first table shows data for 2000-2014 using territorial emissions. The second table shows data for 2000-2013 using consumption-based CO2. Follow the links to view the tables. Both are based on CDIAC calculations for the Global Carbon Project.

Only 21 countries decoupled their economic growth from consumption-based CO2 emissions, between 2000 and 2013. This suggests some countries were only able to decouple by “offshoring” some of their emissions to other countries.

However, major economies including the UK, US, France and Germany still decoupled, even after accounting for the CO2 contained in imported goods. Carbon Brief has looked at the UK’s consumption-based emissions in more detail.

Canada and Poland were among those that failed to decouple their consumption-based CO2 emissions from economic growth.

Main image: Macau, China — Macau at Night — Image by © Imagemore Co., Ltd./Corbis.
Sharelines from this story
  • The 35 countries cutting the link between economic growth and emissions
  • It is not just about reducing emissions, as you cannot have infinite growth, on a finite planet. That is why we need to move to ‘Degrowth’. As proposed by the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission and others around the World.
    Also, I would take some of the quoted reduction in emissions, with a large pinch of salt. Countries have turned to burning biomass and waste, and claiming it is carbon neutral and therefore not counted in their overall emissions. Which is absolute nonsense, because they are still sending CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Also, emissions from aviation are missing from most countries calculations, whilst they are still rising.

  • Mark H Burton

    A question and some comments:
    1) How did you arrive at the carbon intensity figures in the consumption emissions table?

    2) This is interesting and solid work, although I would share Patrick’s caution about some of the data. Also we need to understand 1) the specific ‘decomposition’ of more recent economic growth, post Great Financial Crash, especially, where at least in the UK a lot of it is fuelled by asset price inflation which wouldn’t necessarily be expected to translate into material flows; and 2) the extent to which these changes are themselves sustainable – for example are they a result of a one-off switch from coal to gas (or to electricity generation by renewables) in some economies – if so we’d expect the coupling to return sooner or later.

    • Simon Evans

      The carbon intensity figure is:
      CO2 emissions in year X divided by GDP in year X
      GDP is from the World Bank, in constant local currency ie real GDP
      The change in intensity is:
      (Intensity 2014 – Intensity 2000) / (Intensity 2000)

      • Simon Evans

        As for your questions about longer-term changes and relationship to the crash, interesting, but beyond the scope of what we have done here…

        • Mark H Burton

          Thanks, and yes I understand the scope. But those other Qs are critical, especially in relation to PG_Bill’s point about ‘can you
          cut your emissions *enough* while maintaining economic growth?’

          • GeoffBeacon

            Mark H Burton

            For green growth to be possible for the whole world (, the carbon intensity of production must fall by over 4% a year – and large scale carbon extraction from the atmosphere must be possible after 2050.

            Of the 35 countries above,only three countries have achieved this over the 2000 to 2014 period.

            They are Uzbekistan(4.5%), Singapore(5.3%), Macao(5.9%).

            Also.. “The UK cut its emissions by 128m tonnes of CO2 between 2000 and 2014, a 24% reduction.” As Carbon Brief’s linked article, noted the UK’s consumption-based emissions have not fallen much – although the 2007 crisis had an effect. Closing steel production an buying from China cuts our “official” emissions but, if anything, increases our “real” emissions.

      • Hans Petter Jacobsen

        This blog post is re-posted at Skeptical Science, and I read it there five days ago. I posted a comment on the carbon intensity figures for the consumption based emissions. I have not received any reply on the comment at SkS, and I therefore post it also here at CarbonBrief.

        The table in the blog post shows how the CO2 intensity has changed in percent, and it links to a document that shows the same for territorial CO2 emissions. I agree with the conversion formula that is applied here; it is done as you explain. But the blog post links to another document that shows the same for consumption based CO2 emissions, and I do not understand the conversion in that document. Let me use China as an example. The first document says that their GDP increased with 270.1%, and that their territorial emissions increased with 184.5%. This gives a 23.1% reduction in the CO2 intensity, as stated by the document. The other document uses the same increase in GDP, and it uses 174.8% increase in the consumption based CO2 emissions. This should give a greater reduction in the CO2 intensity than for the territorial CO2 emissions, but the document says that the reduction is 20.4%, i.e. smaller. Using the same formula as for the territorial emissions I calculate the reduction to be 25.7%. Do the two documents apply different formulas for the CO2 intensity, or have I missed something ?

        • Simon Evans

          Hi Hans,
          I have had a look at the data and I think the numbers are correct. Some more details for China to illustrate:
          GDP 2000 was 9.98e12 (constant local currency, don’t worry about units)
          GDP 2013 was 3.44e12
          GDP 2014 was 3.69e13
          GHG territorial
          2000 = 3405
          2014 = 9687
          GHG consumption
          2000 = 3011
          2013 = 8267
          intensity (GHG/GDP)
          2000 = 0.00034 (again, the units aren’t important, only the change)
          2014 = 0.00026
          2000 = 0.00030
          2013 = 0.00024

          Change in intensity is calculated as (2014-2000)/2000.
          I think it’s just a quirk of the numbers that they’ve come out as you observed…

  • PG_Bill

    Surely the question is not ‘can you
    cut your emissions while maintaining economic growth?’, but ‘can you
    cut your emissions *enough* while maintaining economic growth?’ –
    and the answer to that is a resounding ‘No’. Not even if it was desirable (or possible in the long term) to maintain economic growth. The cornucopia will stop being able to produce consumer ‘goodies’ sometime soon and we ought to be preparing for that, quite apart from limate change.

    • GeoffBeacon


      Is “Green Growth a Fantasy?” ( – a resounding ‘No’.

      Are there any settlements in the “developed world” where residents have carbon footprints that are anywhere near reasonable? In York we have a new “sustainable development” where footprints average 14.52 tonnes of CO2e – without even calculating the enormous embodied carbon in the bricks, cement &etc. If the world averaged this we would bust the remaining carbon budget for 1.5°C in two years. See “Three failed eco-towns”, (

      Oxfam has pointed out the richest 10% cause half the world’s carbon emissions. In “a world where 836m people still live in extreme poverty”, they must be helped by fining the affluent for their pollution (i.e. most people in the UK). Proceeds to alleviate poverty and to help the world find better ways of living. See “World wide carbon fee and dividend”,( – On the other hand that’s rather improbable but as SHerlock Holmes said “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable…”

  • Conqueringlion

    “Every year we report a new record in greenhouse gas concentrations”. WMO General Secretary, November 2015. I would like to understand more about the premise underlying the assumption at the beginning of this article that the most important issue for Western elites is making everyone wealthy. That overturns over 200 years of economic and historical analysis and ignores the very current news about all the actions global elites are taking to accumulate more and more wealth for themselves at the expense of everyone else. It seems an incredibly naive framework for interpreting the political economy of climate change.

  • Dan Miller

    The answer to the question in the short term is “Yes”. By putting a rising fee on the CO2 content of fossil fuels and dividending all the money collected back to the public, this policy will (in the US) cut emissions by over 50% while creating 2.8 millions jobs and growing GDP by $1.4 trillion.

    In the longer term, continued emissions will destroy the economy because (1) the external costs of CO2 are real and must be paid by society and (2) CO2 lasts in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years, so the short term benefits of fossil fuels are greatly outweighed by their long term costs. As Sir Nicholas Stern said, CO2 emissions are the biggest market failure in history.

    As for continued growth on a finite planet, it’s not even theoretically possible. Let’s assume for a moment that we started our economic growth obsession 3000 years ago, perhaps in ancient China, and we were successful in growing the amount of stuff we made every year by 3.5%. Assuming the whole world made just one cubic meter of stuff 3000 years ago, how much would we be making now? Would it cover the surface of the Earth? Yes, out to the orbit of Pluto!!

  • Mark H Burton

    I’ve now published a piece where I
    review the strength of the evidence cited in this article and consider what it means in
    relation to a) the thesis that emissions can be decoupled from economic
    growth, b) that this will be sufficient to the climate change challenge
    facing humanity. It’s quite detailed but largely non-technical.

Related Articles


Expert analysis directly to your inbox.

Get a Daily or Weekly round-up of all the important articles and papers selected by Carbon Brief by email.


Expert analysis directly to your inbox.

Get a Daily or Weekly round-up of all the important articles and papers selected by Carbon Brief by email.