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|
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.