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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

Carbon Emissions: Who Is Doing vs. Who Has Done More?

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Inspired by a tweet, this blog post spurred me to think about how to answer a question: who is doing more on carbon emissions: the US or some other country?  I think looking ahead to the next 5-10 years, the author is probably correct: it appears that the US is on a path toward additional CO2 reductions while some other nations’ efforts might not yield the results they did in the past.  But that only captures part of the story.  To get a good idea of who has done what, it is instructive to look at multiple time periods, as the following table does for OECD countries (link has raw data; calculations are mine):

Environment – Air and land – Emissions of Carbon Dioxide
CO2 emissions
Million tonnes
1990 1999 2006 2009 09-06 09-99 09-90 09-71
Australia 260 333 393 395 1% 19% 52% 174%
Austria 56 61 72 63 -13% 3% 13% 29%
Belgium 108 117 110 101 -8% -14% -6% -14%
Canada 432 511 544 521 -4% 2% 21% 54%
Chile 31 57 60 65 8% 14% 110% 210%
Czech R. 155 111 121 110 -9% -1% -29% -27%
Denmark 50 55 56 47 -16% -15% -6% -15%
Estonia 36 15 16 15 -6% 0% -58% ####
Finland 54 56 67 55 -18% -2% 2% 38%
France 352 378 380 354 -7% -6% 1% -18%
Germany 950 829 824 750 -9% -10% -21% -23%
Greece 70 80 94 90 -4% 13% 29% 260%
Hungary 67 57 56 48 -14% -16% -28% -20%
Iceland 2 2 2 2 0% 0% 0% 100%
Ireland 30 39 45 39 -13% 0% 30% 77%
Israel 33 50 62 65 5% 30% 97% 364%
Italy 397 425 464 389 -16% -8% -2% 33%
Japan 1064 1169 1205 1093 -9% -7% 3% 44%
Korea 229 385 476 515 8% 34% 125% 890%
Luxem. 10 7 11 10 -9% 43% 0% -33%
Mexico 265 334 395 400 1% 20% 51% 312%
Netherl. 156 169 178 176 -1% 4% 13% 35%
N. Zealand 23 30 34 31 -9% 3% 35% 121%
Norway 28 38 37 37 0% -3% 32% 54%
Poland 342 303 304 287 -6% -5% -16% 0%
Portugal 39 60 56 53 -5% -12% 36% 279%
Slovak R. 57 39 37 33 -11% -15% -42% -15%
Slovenia 13 14 16 15 -6% 7% 15% ####
Spain 206 269 332 283 -15% 5% 37% 136%
Sweden 53 57 48 42 -13% -26% -21% -49%
Switzerland 41 43 44 42 -5% -2% 2% 8%
Turkey 127 177 240 256 7% 45% 102% 524%
UK 549 515 534 466 -13% -10% -15% -25%
USA 4869 5506 5685 5195 -9% -6% 7% 21%
EU27 total 4052 3812 3996 3577 -10% -6% -12% ####
OECD total 11158 12293 12999 12045 -7% -2% 8% 29%
Brazil 194 292 327 338 3% 16% 74% 271%
China 2211 3047 5603 6832 22% 124% 209% 754%
India 582 939 1252 1586 27% 69% 173% 693%
Indonesia 142 261 356 376 6% 44% 165% ####
Russian Federation 2179 1468 1580 1533 -3% 4% -30% ####
S. Africa 255 291 331 369 11% 27% 45% 112%
World 20966 22947 28093 28994 3% 26% 38% 106%

I have included data from 5 years: 1971 (the first of the dataset), 1990, 1999, 2006, and 2009 (the last year with data).  The blog post I link to above asks which nation has reduced CO2 emissions the most since 2006.  In many ways, this is like choosing 1998 for the start of a global temperature data comparison.  You can do it, but that doesn’t mean you should do it.  I will use 2006-2009 as the baseline against which I make comparisons with other start years.  The story changes (of course) when you do this.

How did the US fare from 2006 to 2009?  Emissions were reduced (-9%), there is no denying that.  The Great Recession and the relatively widespread switch from old expensive coal plants to newer cheaper natural gas plants accounted for most of that reduction.  How do we know?  What is the US’s national climate policy?  We don’t know because we don’t have one.  Sure, there are actions that the EPA and other agencies of the Obama administration have taken, but they occurred simultaneously with the recession and market responses to a different cheap fuel.  It will take years before their effects are noticeable in aggregate numbers like total CO2 emissions.  But look, most European nations’ emissions were also reduced during the 2006-2009 time period.  The biggest factors: the Great Recession and austerity measures keeping economies from growing.

What does the next time period show us?  From 1999 to 2009 (11 years), US emissions fell by 6% – still a noteworthy accomplishment given the lack of national policy pushing us towards any type of meaningful goal.  How did European nations do in comparison?  Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Sweden, and the United Kingdom all posted double-digit percentage emission declines.  All but two of those countries posted double the US’ 6% value (>=12%).  What happened in the late-1990s?  The signing of the Kyoto Protocol (all except the US, of course).  Did the European nations hit their Kyoto targets?  No, but they decreased their CO2 emissions substantially.

I often write that we should benchmark nations’ CO2 emissions to 1990, since that was prior to Kyoto or even the Rio Conference.  In other words, before emissions garnered widespread international attention.  Let’s compare the US and European nations on that basis.  I would further advocate for this comparison because of the length of time involved: 19 years, which represents a lot of time.

Unsurprisingly, US emissions increased from 1990 to 2009 – by 7%.  What about their European counterparts?  In this case, I’ll collect all the nations who posted emission decreases.   Belgium (-6%), Czech Republic (-29%), Denmark (-6%), Estonia (-58%), Germany (-21%!), Hungary (-28%), Italy (-2%), Poland (-16%), Solvak Republic (-42%), Sweden (-21%!), and the United Kingdom (-15%).  Well, well, well.  It appears that Germany’s reputation for reducing emissions is pretty well deserved.  Take away the former Eastern bloc nations and there are six European countries which accomplished something the US did not.

The last column represents the longest look possible: from 1971 to 2009.  I have never looked at this time frame and it held some surprises.  In contrast to the US’ (+21%) change in CO2 emissions, Belgium (-14%), Czech Republic (-27%), Denmark (-15%), France (-18%), Germany (-23%), Hungary (-20%), Luxembourg (-33%), Slovak Republic (-15%), Sweden (-49%), and the United Kingdom (-25%) all posted declines compared to 38 years ago!  Let’s give credit where credit is due: that is impressive!

I am not saying that European countries are perfect or that they accomplished their task.  Anything but: they still have positive emissions, which is changing the climate.  But their emissions are, in yearly magnitude and in cumulative sum, dwarfed by the US’s.  The US has a very long way to go before it can claim any environmental success story related to climate change.  We do have things we can learn from the other side of the pond.  We could start by developing and publicizing a national climate policy.  Absent that, efforts from US mayors are needed and welcomed as part of a bottom-up approach, which I am convinced is the only way this problem will be tackled successfully.

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