Achieving dual goals of economic growth and carbon emission reduction is a major issue in China. In this paper we define three economic growth patterns (green growth, brown growth and black growth) according to the relationship between economic scale and carbon emissions, and then trace the historical trajectory of economic growth over the last 40 years. Granger causality is used to test China's economic growth and carbon emission linkage. We argue that green growth means that the rate of carbon emission reduction is faster than the increase in GDP. When carbon intensity reduction is slower than GDP growth, brown growth occurs. Black growth occurs when both carbon intensity and economic scale increase. For China, we denote the four periods of black growth (1971–1977), brown growth (1978–2001), black growth (2002–2004), and brown growth (2004–2010). Granger causality tests indicate that mutual causality between carbon emissions and economic growth exists in the short term, but not the long term. In order to achieve the goals of economic growth and carbon intensity reduction, it is necessary for China to actively participate in global carbon reduction activities, technological innovation and ecological civilization construction.