In October, a lengthy and alarming report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world was about 12 years away from significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions if we were to limit global warming at an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Carbon dioxide, produced mainly by the combustion of fossil fuels for the transportation or generation of electricity, constitutes the bulk of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.
On Wednesday, the world received its report card for the year 2018. Carbon dioxide emissions, rather than decrease, are expected to increase by 2.7%, according to data from the Global Carbon Project. This is largely due to increases in China, India and the United States.
What is particularly problematic for the three countries with the highest percentage growth is that each one of them is already among the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide each year. The 2016 data from the European Union's EDGAR program indicate that China, the United States and India are the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world.
If you get 3% of $ 1,000, you earned $ 30. If you get 3% of $ 1,000,000, you have earned $ 30,000. Starting from a larger base value, we get a larger increase in real terms – that 's good when we talk about money, but very bad when we talk about the emissions of greenhouse gas.
Even more alarming is the speed with which emissions in China and India have increased. In 1990, the United States was by far the largest producer of carbon dioxide. The next heavier producer was what is now Russia.
Over the next 30 years, that's what happened.
Thanks in part to the economic slowdown that began a decade ago, US emissions had been largely stable. Not in 2018.
The major concern is that China and India, while being large producers of carbon dioxide, also have relatively low emissions when considered in terms of population. The billions of people in these two countries generate much lower emissions on average than Americans or average Europeans.
Ironically, this growth in international emissions has been used by US politicians, including President Trump, to downplay the need for the United States to act against climate change. The argument advanced is that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will disadvantage US companies, while most emissions occur abroad. The Paris climate agreement reached under the administration of President Barack Obama was the most important (non-binding) effort to encourage all countries to tackle the problem. We hope that unexpected arguments could be given for a country (such as the United States) to disarm unilaterally.
Trump announced plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement last year. Since then, he has Obama's untied proposals to reduce US emissions.
If China and India produced each year the same amount of carbon dioxide per capita as the United States, China's emissions would be twice as high as at present – and India's emissions eight times higher.
The question is whether emissions in China and India (and the world) will continue at a pace corresponding to that of the United States. Or, in fact, the question is whether emissions in these countries – and around the world – can quickly be reduced.
So far, that does not seem promising.