Global CO2 Emissions: Increases Dwarf Recent U.S. Reductions

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While U.S. CO2 emissions have shown unexpected declines in recent years, they’re just one piece of a big and complex puzzle. China’s and other developing-world countries’ growing emissions swamp the reductions seen in the U.S., the European Union, and Japan.

Global climate change is, by its very nature, a global problem.

The emission reductions in recent years in the United States are important, but truly effective solutions to climate change will require global action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, while the developed world has done a reasonably good job at limiting the growth of emissions (and reducing them in recent years), this modest progress has been more than offset by the dramatic growth in emissions from China and, to a lesser extent, India and other developing economies.

The figure above shows annual emissions for major emitters, including the U.S., the European Union, Japan, and other members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It also shows emissions from the group of richer “developed” countries, Russia, India, China, and other non-OECD (e.g. “developing”) countries.

Chinese emissions have surged in recent years, increasing far faster than those of any other country in history. Only eight years ago, in 2005, Chinese emissions were lower than those of the United States; some time between 2013 and 2015 they are expected to be twice as large as U.S. emissions. Think about it: Another United States-worth of emissions added in a decade’s time, a troubling trend and little evidence of its slowing down.

The Kyoto Protocol, now largely defunct as a result of the failure of international negotiations to agree on a post-2012 successor, set emission reduction targets relative to a baseline year or 1990. The figure below shows changes in emissions by country relative to 1990. Russia stands out as something of an outlier, having reduced its emissions nearly 30 percent from 1990 levels. This decrease is largely a result of de-industrialization caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic collapse.

The European Union represents a bit more admirable of a success story, reducing carbon emission nearly 14 percent from 1990 levels as a result of aggressive policies and a vibrant carbon market. Japanese and U.S. emissions have increased modestly, about 6-7 percent since 1990.

Developing countries emissions have increased dramatically over the same period, with Chinese emissions rising 280 percent and Indian emissions increasing 230 percent, the results of rapid economic growth and industrialization. Other OECD and non-OECD country emissions have both increased about 60-75 percent since 1990.

Since 2005, U.S., Japanese, and European emissions have all decreased between 5 and 15 percent, though 2012 data for Japan and Europe is not yet available. Russian emissions have stayed relatively flat, while both Indian and Chinese emissions have increased about 60 percent. Indian emissions, despite having a percentage increase comparable to those of China since 1990 and 2005, are still a fraction of the size of Chinese emissions, the result of a much lower starting point.

Image of Earth and puzzle pieces
Next step in assembling the puzzle: Fitting in CO2 emissions of China, India.

While emission declines in the developed world over the past few years are worth celebrating, they must be seen in context of rapid emission rises in the rest of the world. Climate change is a global problem, and from the perspective of global CO2 emissions there has been little if any progress made, with emissions increasing faster than ever. To make a real dent in global carbon emissions, it will be critical to engage China and India — important pieces of the global climate change puzzle — around moving away from coal and oil towards lower carbon forms of electricity generation and transportation.

Zeke Hausfather

Zeke Hausfather, a data scientist with extensive experience with clean technology interests in Silicon Valley, is currently a Senior Researcher with Berkeley Earth. He is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections (E-mail:, Twitter: @hausfath).
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8 Responses to Global CO2 Emissions: Increases Dwarf Recent U.S. Reductions

  1. Marlin R. Turby says:

    If I go the store and purchase a product that was manufactured… say, in China, then the carbon emission trail ultimately leads to me. If on the other hand we returned the manufacturing plant from China to the U.S., then the carbon emission would end up being plotted on the blue, U.S. line on the graph instead of on the Chinese line. The U.S. graph would turn up proportional to the Chinese brown graph line, turning down.

    That is unlikely to happen because in the present system I probably would not purchase the item due to the increased labor cost in manufacturing it. The factory would also be faced with increased expenses in limiting pollution. It appears that here in the U.S,.we value clean water and air more than the Chinese, at least as far as our back yard goes that is.

    It almost seems as if the old saying holds up,” Out of sight…out of mind”.

    But then as Mr. Hausfather points out “Global climate change, is by it’s very nature, a global problem”. To which I will add, so are all the other issues that come along with it, labor rates, clean water and air. It’s a rather integrated and complex situation…all these… wheels within wheels.

    Therefore my desire to purchase nice things, at an affordable price, generates a series of problems that occur on a global scale !

    That doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person and I shouldn’t take it that way. It does however make me reevaluate the system and consider other possible methods that would not lead to so many problems. That is a more productive approach than simply reacting because I feel threatened that someone is blaming me or this country, for all these problems.

    I think that is both logical and moral…accountability.

    I wonder how much carbon goes into the atmosphere on an annual basis from energy being expended in fighting over who’s to blame, conspiracy theories and the like. We could probably lower emissions substantially just by getting on with it and finding solutions that are consistent with natural order and grow the economy in a sustainable manner to boot !

    I think in generations to come they will realize that if you really want to have some quality free time in your life, then design an efficient system to begin with, that works on a global scale.

  2. On the subject of consumption-based carbon accounting, this paper by Davis and Calderia is definitely worth reading:

    However, the transfer between the U.S. and China is on the order of 400 MT CO2/year and China to the whole world is around 1000 MT CO2/year. Its is significant, but represents only around 15 percent of total Chinese emissions, and doesn’t really change the global picture that substantially.

    • Marlin R. Turby says:

      Thank you Zeke! That is a very comprehensive article and I will use it for future reference.

      I am glad to see that the sources of emissions are so thoroughly examined. From that we can determine what works and what doesn’t and begin to steer ourselves towards a more efficient and sustainable civilization.

      The antiquated traditional macro-economic model holds that the environment is a sub-set of the economy. That does not appear to be consistent with our planetary physics.

      I think along the lines of ecological economics. In that model the economy is a sub-set of the environment. Here, economies are based on maintenance, innovation, sustainability and full acknowledgement of the scientific method. They are not dependent upon exponential growth, inevitable financial debt, wars, corporate mythology, resource extraction/depletion and collapse of planetary life support systems as the current system is.

      It’s a better system… by far.

  3. colinc says:

    Very astute, Mr. Turby! :) The burning of fossil fuels, in general, most certainly is _not_ the problem, regardless of the location. It is the “Hows” and, more importantly, the “Whys” of greenhouse gas emissions that lay at the crux of the accelerating global calamity. Alas, I’ve seen very little indication that anyone, anywhere, truly grasps that concept, let alone pursuing reasoned debate in that regard. Worse still, few appear able to perceive the cascading catastrophes that are about to occur much, much sooner than anyone anticipated. Today _is_ the best day of the rest of our lives.

    • Marlin R. Turby says:

      Colinc, that was written with an edge of sarcasm. You are correct CO2 is CO2 regardless of it’s origin. I do grasp the extent of climate change. My source that I rely upon is the peer reviewed scientific community. I read quite a lot. Recently I chose to stop simply reading and become actively involved.

      I choose to be optimistic, this is no time for resignation or apathy…we can do this.

      I look at it this way. We have the scientific communities backing, we have the physical reality of a warming planet and a changing climate. We have measurements of CO2 concentrations,(Keelings Curve), rising sea levels, rising sea surface temperatures, flora and fauna migrations, a melting cryosphere (ice), a thawing tundra, increasing desertification, a cooling of the stratosphere due to retained heat in the lower troposphere, proxy data of tree rings, ice cores and sediment cores, just to name a few.

      The climate contrarians have an observable shifting of fabricated stories, alibis and deep pockets full of dirty money. From that coinage they have financed a war on science. The reality is unfortunately for them, is that they’re painting themselves into a corner. One day their bubble will burst, the public will come to understand who they are and what they have done.

      I’m a little old fashion and in my world decency wins out over corruption. Humanity can solve the problems of energy and environmental stewardship. The more difficult aspect is finding the will to do it. The contrarians need to be exposed and the myths put to rest.

      Citizens Climate Lobby is a growing organization. They are optimistic, people friendly, well educated, highly organized and climate scientist extraordinaire, James Hanson is on their advisory board.

      Today is not the best day of the rest of your life. That is only a conversation that takes you nowhere. It is not a fact.

      There are chapters of CCL all over the country, if you are from the U.S. that is. Get involved, do something, it’s healthy and will invigorate and inspire you !

  4. Dan Rogers says:

    It sure doesn’t look like we Americans will be able, all by ourselves, to exert a downward pressure on the upper end of the Keeling Curve sufficent to make the Curve stop its upward advance at the rate it has been advancing. If we could get India and China to do the same things we are doing to reduce our output of carbon dioxide, perhaps we could get that Keeling Curve to level off or at least quit ascending at the same steady rate that it has been ascending ever since people began measuring carbon dioxide in the air atop Mauna Loa. Personally I doubt that it would work, but Al Gore thinks it would, and he is a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

    If such international cooperation cannot be achieved, we should really consider legislative action, either by the State of Hawaii or by the United States federal government. Mauna Loa, after all, belongs to the United States, and we Americans should have the definitive, final word on how much carbon dioxide actually exists, or is allowed to exist, at or near that mountain’s summit. Why should we Americans — and I mean ALL of us Americans and not just the ones in Hawaii — allow ourselves to be jerked around by trace amounts of carbon dioxide — carbon dioxide which belongs to US AMERICANS — found in the air on top of a volcano way out in the Pacific Ocean?

    I say that if the Keeling Curve imposes hardships on our country we should simply criminalize it, and then, in the interest of crime prevention, we should either (1) make it illegal to measure carbon dioxide on top of Mauna Loa, or (2) haul cannisters of pure oxygen or pure nitrogen up to the top of that mountain and empty those cannisters to dilute whatever carbon dioxide might be up there, thus alleviating the ongoing increase in carbon dioxide up there that has everyone so hot and bothered.

    Science and the Keeling Curve have been giving us anxiety now for over fifty years. I say that has gone on long enough. I am a lawyer, and I say we should give legislation a try! It’s what law-making is for!

    • Marlin R. Turby says:

      Ignoring Keeling’s Curve will impose a far greater burden on society than acknowledging it. That is a fact, not a belief or opinion.

      The sole reason for the economic burden myth spun by the contrarians is that acknowledging climate change, does put a huge burden on their profits. For some reason, in their thinking, their needs out weigh the remainder of the human race.

      Greed has always plagued humans. Darwin’s natural selection has evolved into the selection of the unnatural, morally bankrupt and reverted to myth in the corporate world of the fossil fuel industry. It may be survival of the fittest in the short term but in the long term it won’t fly.

      We’re not buying it.

      Too bad so many have taken to the misinformation and call it gospel. The watering troughs are certainly busy these days.

      There is always the opportunity for deceitful investment strategies within renewable markets. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
      That is very distinct from renewable energy technologies as a sustainable means of energy generation.

      The science and technology will forever expand and the great pillar of lies and deceit will have it’s day of reckoning.

  5. Paul Quigg says:

    In the 1990 emissions the EU and Russia benefitted from the terrible Soviet Union pollution and in the 2005 emissions the recession in the West made made those countries look good. The collapse of the Soviet Union and a Western recession show how little global efforts have contributed to emission mitigation. So many programs, so much money, so many conferences, so many goals, so many interests, and so little results.