Global and national CO2 Emissions: A reality check in time for the Durban climate summit

The 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change begins today in Durban, South Africa (Source: UNFCCC).

This week the 17th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) begins. In Durban, South Africa, delegations from countries around the world will continue negotiating greenhouse gas reductions in order to prevent global warming from spinning out of control. So it is just in time that the International Energy Agency (IEA) releases its latest statistics on global CO2 emissions.

The provided figures contain CO₂ emission source breakdowns by fuel, sector and region over the period 1971 to 2009. According to the data, nearly two thirds of worldwide emissions come from two sectors – electricity and heat generation (41 percent) as well as transport (23 percent). Remaining emissions come from industrial processes (20 percent), residential (6 percent), and a multitude of additional sources (10 percent). Regarding energy, coal is the leading CO₂ emission source, accounting for 43 percent of those emissions, followed by oil at 37 percent and natural gas at 20 percent.

The most interesting story the new numbers tell, however, is that of regional distribution of emissions. In 2009, CO2 emissions in developing countries grew at 3.3 percent, primarily due to continued economic growth and increased coal demand, while in developed countries emissions fell sharply by 6.5 percent, mostly attributable to the decreased use of coal, oil and natural gas as a consequence of the global economic recession and financial crises.  Emissions in developed countries in 2009 therewith fell 6.4 percent below their 1990 level. 1990 is often used as a reference year for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, for example in the 1992 UNFCCC and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. This makes sense, as 1990 was the year when UN-steered climate change negotiations started, and when the issue first received prominence on the international political agenda.

A closer look at the IEA data reveals interesting trends. The five largest CO2 emitters – China, the United States, India, the Russian Federation, and Japan, in the order of emissions – account for about half of the world’s population, emissions, and gross domestic product (GDP); however, the CO₂ emissions per unit of GDP as well as per capita are not at all equal across the five.

The figure below gives a clear illustration of the trends in emission intensities for the five economies between 1990 and 2009: China has managed to significantly reduce the carbon intensity of its economy but the Chinese today emit more per person than 20 years ago. The United States has reduced its carbon output both in terms of per dollar generated as well as per American citizen, but still remains by far the dirtiest country amongst these big five in terms of per person output. The two largest emitters, China and the United States, together contributed 41 percent of the world’s emissions in 2009, and both almost have the same share compared to one another. On a per capita level, though, the average American emitted more than three times as much CO₂ as the average Chinese citizen.

Russia reduced emissions both on a per capita and a per ruble base, mostly due to the breakdown of energy-intense industries after the country opened its economy and political system in the beginning of the 1990s. Still, emissions per unit of GDP in the Russian Federation are 3 times that of Japan, despite a much lower living standard. The numbers clearly show that carbon emissions are not necessarily related to a nation’s development status. Japan’s economy and population are significantly less reliant on the emission of CO2than the United States, despite a similar living standard. The divergent numbers are, it is clear, the result of both different development in individual industry sectors as well as a consequence of alternative political goals, decisions, regulations and measure. Economies nowhere in the world exist in a vacuum. They are influenced by political frameworks as well as different norms and cultural orientations.

Trends in CO2 emission intensities for the top 5 emitting countries. Source: IEA

Similar socio-economic indicators analyzed by IEA, such as CO₂ per total primary energy supply, and CO₂ per kWh electricity and heat output, allow us to look at countries’ carbon footprints from a variety of perspectives. As Durban draws near, these indicators provide important reality checks regarding how absolute emission numbers and carbon intensity levels of one country compare to the rest of the world. With the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period expiring next year, how do we use the current snapshot of emission trends to renew a global climate treaty? Are we able to move forward to sustainable and low-carbon development post-2012?


Watch out for a follow-up blog next week on how the current trends can inform negotiations in Durban.

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