climate change globalisation

The world’s biggest carbon problems

It’s COP season again, which means a torrent of climate related reports, books, studies and campaigns. If previous years are anything to go by, I’ll get to some of them by February. Here’s something that I thought might be helpful earlier than that. As negotiators meet to thrash out the next round of climate agreements, here’s a summary of the biggest sources of emissions.

First, the top seven emitters, as graphed by the UNEP’s Emissions Gap report.

As always, it’s impossible to avoid the China question. The country’s emissions are just so disproportionately huge. It’s also worth remembering the usual caveats – an enormous population that qualifies those emissions a little when considered on a per capita basis – though not much. Those Chinese emissions also reflect its role as a major exporter, so a portion of those emissions are ours. And the boom in China’s emissions coincides with the greatest number of people lifted out of poverty in human history.

Notice the LULUCF element of the graph above too. Standing for Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry, this can be positive or negative. Brazil and Indonesia are in the red, as deforestation is rife. Others are drawing down emissions through land use. China knocks 8% off its total through its reforestation and land management policies.

None of that is to make excuses for China. There are no excuses for Chinese emissions. But there are reasons for it, and it makes global cooperation more important, not less important. There is nothing to gain from making China a climate pariah.

Now let’s break down those emissions by sector, using a graph from the Corporate Knights’ Earth Index Report.

This allows us to be a bit more specific about what the biggest emissions challenges are. The single biggest obstacle between us and a liveable climate is China’s power sector, with Chinese industry right behind it. Without rapid and targeted action here, there is little hope that disastrous climate change can be averted.

It’s easy for those to dominate discussion, but there are some other big blocks on the mat. Transport emissions in the United States are in third. The US power sector, India’s power, and China’s fossil fuel production are all priority areas for climate action. The EU has work to do on transport. Brazil’s agriculture stands out.

From a climate justice perspective, those who don’t appear in these graphs matter too, for different reasons. The G20 is responsible for 75% of all emissions. It’s the world’s biggest economies that have created the crisis, but every country in the world is dragged into the consequences of their emissions.

COP27 is unfolding in the context of all these serious inequalities and I don’t envy the negotiators.

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