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New data suggest period of soaring global emissions may have peaked

LE BOURGET, France — Industrial emissions of greenhouse gases rose only slightly in 2014 and appear to be on track to decline in 2015, according to new data that raise the possibility that a period of rapid global emissions growth may be coming to an end.

The decline of 0.6 percent projected for this year, should it come to pass, would be highly unusual at a time when the global economy is growing. The projection contrasts sharply with emissions growth that averaged 2.4 percent a year during the last decade, and sometimes topped 3 percent.

The new figures were released at the climate conference here by the Global Carbon Project, a collaboration that studies emissions, and published simultaneously in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Past emissions declines have usually been linked to economic distress, such as the global financial panic of 2009 and the Russian economic meltdown of the late 1990s.

The new figures suggest that there is a chance that global emissions have already peaked and may be starting a long-term decline, experts said Monday, which would be an important inflection point for the international effort to limit the risks of global warming.

But the experts with the Global Carbon Project said they did not consider that to be likely.

Instead, emissions growth may resume as the Chinese economy recovers from a period of slow growth and as India pursues a plan to double its burning of coal in power plants, part of a program to bring 300 million poor villagers onto the power grid.

"Emissions in India are at the same level as China in the 1990s," said Glen P. Peters, an analyst with a climate center in Oslo who spoke at a news conference here.

Peters added that in coming years, India "could actually dominate the global growth in the way that China has done in the past."

Still, there is some hope that emissions growth in coming years will be slower than in the last decade, Peters and other experts said, especially as countries start acting on climate pledges they have made this year.

Climate negotiators are meeting in a huge conference in Le Bourget, a Paris suburb, hoping to reach a deal by late in the week that commits virtually every country in the world to taking at least some steps to battle global warming.

The new data show that industrial emissions rose 0.6 percent in 2014. That year was the hottest in recorded history, but it is almost certain to be exceeded by 2015.

China accounts for more than a quarter of the world's industrial emissions of greenhouse gases, and the new figures reflect broad shifts in the Chinese economy that led to lower emissions growth in 2014, as well as a likelihood of declining emissions in 2015.

Chinese growth has slowed markedly, the country is transitioning toward a service economy, and it is pushing hard on renewable power as a way to limit greenhouse gases.

But China's consumption of coal grew by almost threefold from 2000 to 2013, and it now consumes about half the coal used worldwide.

The Chinese government cleared away some doubts about the reliability of its energy data when it recently released sharply revised statistics that showed that coal consumption between 2000 and 2013, measured by energy content, was almost 10 percent higher than previously thought.

That upward revision has made the recent slowdown in coal demand appear even starker, and reinforced the conviction of some experts that Chinese demand has peaked or soon will.

In the first 10 months of this year, China's coal production fell 3.6 percent compared to the same time last year, a state planning official, Liang Weiliang, said this month.

"We must be fully prepared for the eventuality that clean energy will not only take up the growth in energy consumption, but will also increasingly displace current stocks" of power plants, Liang said at a meeting of coal traders.

The Chinese government has vowed that emissions will stop growing by about 2030, although the recent slowdown has convinced more scientists that a peak by about 2025 is feasible.

But others argue that China's appetite for coal will revive when the economy picks up, even if the days of double-digit growth are over.

Despite the Communist Party leaders' vows to clean up air pollution, local governments have promoted plans to build many more coal-fired power plants. This year, 155 proposed plants have received preliminary or full approval, said a recent report by Greenpeace East Asia.

"There is the shifting structure of the economy and the shifting structure of energy consumption, but it's also the low point in an economic cycle," Zou Ji, a deputy director general of China's National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, said in an interview. "I'm not optimistic that we're near a peak."

Even if China's coal demand keeps falling, its growing demand for oil and gas are likely to continue driving overall carbon dioxide emissions upward, although more slowly than before, Wang Tao, a researcher on energy and climate change issues at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, said in an interview.

"It's not surprising if we're talking about a reduction in coal consumption, but overall emissions would be another issue," Wang said. "It's likely it will be bumping back. We will probably still maintain a lower growth rate of emissions for maybe years to come."