Why the U.N. climate talks keep breaking down, in five simple charts

November 20, 2013

It's now the second week of this year's international climate negotiations in Warsaw and things ... aren't going well.

Protestors at the Warsaw climate talks (AP)
Protestors at the Warsaw climate talks. (AP)

"An old rift between rich and poor has reopened in U.N. climate talks," the AP reports, "as developing countries look for ways to make developed countries accept responsibility for global warming — and pay for it."

In short: Poor countries argue that richer countries are responsible for most of the carbon-dioxide already the atmosphere, so they should pay for the damage caused by global warming. The rich countries, for their part, point out that you also have to look at future emissions when divvying up blame — which puts the spotlight on fast-growing nations like China and India.

That dispute has taken all sorts of forms. The world's wealthiest nations have offered $35 billion in climate aid since 2010 (sort of), but they haven't quite followed through on their pledges to increase that amount in the years ahead. Meanwhile, the United States has flatly objected to efforts to assign legal responsibility for specific weather damages caused by global warming.

We can break this argument down into chart form, with the help of the Global Carbon Project, which just released a fantastic presentation (pdf) on worldwide carbon emissions. Here are five particularly useful graphs:

1) The U.S. and Europe are responsible for nearly half of the man-made carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere — but that's changing fast:


The chart above shows cumulative emissions from fossil fuels and cement over time — for any given year, this (roughly) shows who is responsible for what fraction of the carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere.

The United States and Europe are responsible for 49 percent of all carbon emissions from fossil fuels and cement that have been emitted since 1870. That's why poorer nations blame them for current global warming and are asking for aid.

But, U.S. and European negotiators point out, this picture is changing very quickly. Since 1990, for instance, China has been responsible for 18 percent of the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere. That's more than Europe (15 percent) and nearly on par with the United States (20 percent). So perhaps we should look at another chart ...

2) Developing nations are now responsible for the majority of emissions each year.


The chart above shows annual emissions, and as you can see, there's been a huge change in the past decade.

The previous climate treaty — the Kyoto Protocol — was premised on the idea that wealthy nations should cut their emissions and allow poorer countries to grow unrestrained for awhile. And, at the time, there was a certain logic there. Those wealthy nations still produced the majority of the world's emissions each year.

But that's no longer true today. Just 37 percent of the carbon-dioxide emissions released in 2012 came from developed nations. Fast-growing developing countries, by contrast, produced 57 percent. (The rest came from international sources, like shipping and air travel.)

3) China now emits as much carbon dioxide per person as the European Union.


China is the world's number one source of carbon-dioxide by far. But Chinese officials have long argued that this is only because the country has 1.3 billion people — way more than the United States and Europe combined. A fairer way to look at things would be per capita emissions.

But there's also been a shift here: The average person in China now emits as much carbon-dioxide as the average person in the EU-28. China's emissions per capita continue to grow very quickly while U.S. emissions have been falling sharply. Hence the dispute.

4) Wealthy nations continue to "outsource" some of their carbon to poorer nations:


Now let's make things even more complicated. Emissions can also be "outsourced." Say that a U.S. factory moves to China and produces goods that are then sent back to the United States. China's emissions go up. America's emissions go down. But who's responsible for that carbon, really?

The chart above shows that the United States, Europe and other developed countries have "outsourced" a significant portion of their emissions to the developing world. You can see this by comparing the dark blue line (emissions within borders) with the light blue line (emissions driven by consumption).

So it's true that developed nations have cut emissions within their own borders since the Kyoto Protocol. But that's been more than offset by "outsourced" emissions to countries like China. Those transfers are now growing at 12 percent per year.

5) And, by the way, the world is still nowhere close to meeting its climate goals.


There's a lot of bickering about responsibility and blame at the Warsaw climate talks. But it's worth reiterating the big picture. The black line in the chart above shows the growth of global carbon-dioxide emissions. The colored lines show various future pathways and what they'd mean for climate change.

The world's nations have agreed that it would be "dangerous" to allow global temperatures to rise more than 2°C (or 3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. But to have a decent shot of staying below 2°C, global emissions would likely have to follow the blue or yellow lines — peaking reasonably soon and then declining.

So far, there's been no indication that the world is planning to do that. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, scientists estimate, we can expect somewhere between 3.2°C and 5.4°C of warming by the end of the century — a level that the World Bank believes would be very difficult to adapt to.

And even if you take seriously all the vague promises and commitments that countries like the United States, China, and Europe have made over the years, a recent U.N. report found that it's still unlikely that the world will manage to avoid 2°C of warming. That's the overarching issue here. But it's unlikely to get resolved in the current round of climate talks.

Further reading:

— More great charts and maps on emissions here, from the Global Carbon Project.

— How the world is failing at its climate goals, in one giant chart.

— Developed nations have pledged $30 billion to help the poor adapt to climate change. Where did it all go?

— A good short explanation of why poor countries are likely to be more vulnerable to climate change than wealthier ones. Basic geography plays a role. But so do  poverty and weak infrastructure.

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