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Chimneys of coal-fired power plant are seen next to residential houses in the night in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, China Reuters

Global carbon emissions are expected to stall – and maybe even fall – for the first time ever during a period of economic growth. Scientists from the University of East Anglia and the Global Carbon Project announced emissions could fall by up to 0.6% but warned this an estimate and "there will always be a range of uncertainty".

The researchers put the fall in emissions primarily down to China and its decreased use of coal. Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre at UEA, who led the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, said: "These figures are certainly not typical of the growth trajectory seen since 2000 – where the annual growth in emissions was between 2% and 3%. What we are now seeing is that emissions appear to have stalled, and they could even decline slightly in 2015.

"But it is important to remember that our projection for 2015 is an estimate and there will always be a range of uncertainty. In this case, the 2015 projection ranges from a global decline in emissions of up to 1.5% – or at the other end of the spectrum, a small rise of 0.5%."

The news comes as nations meet at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris to hammer out a deal to reduce emissions. The talks are expected to go on until 11 December, when it is hoped agreements will be made to keep global warming below 2C by the end of the century.

Ahead of the meeting, China announced ambitious targets. It said it will cut emissions from its coal power plants by 60% by 2020. The latest study was based on energy consumption data from China and the US, along with forecast economic growth for the rest of the world. After China, the biggest contributors to carbon emissions were the US, the European Union and India.

Le Quéré pointed to China's efforts as one of the key factors in the stall. "The projected decline is largely down to China's decreased coal use, driven by its economic adjustment," she said. "Whether a slower growth in global emissions will be sustained depends on the use of coal in China and elsewhere, and where new energy will come from. In 2014, more than half of new energy needs in China were met from renewable sources such as hydro, nuclear, wind and solar power."

She said it is unlikely emissions have "peaked for good", as energy needs for growing economies still mainly rely on coal. "We are still emitting massive amounts of CO2 annually – around 36 billion tonnes from fossil fuels and industry alone," she said.

"There is a long way to near zero emissions. Today's news is encouraging, but world leaders at COP21 need to agree on the substantial emission reductions needed to keep warming below 2C. And despite the slowing of CO2 emissions globally, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has now reached 400 parts per million, its highest level in at least 800,000 years."