In October, a lengthy and alarming report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world had about 12 years to significantly curtail greenhouse gas emissions if we were to hold global warming to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. The bulk of the greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere is carbon dioxide, produced primarily when fossil fuels are burned for transportation or electricity generation.
On Wednesday, the world got its report card for the year 2018. Carbon dioxide emissions, rather than dropping, are projected to increase by 2.7 percent, according to data from the Global Carbon Project. That’s thanks largely to increases in China, India — and the United States.
What’s particularly problematic about those three countries seeing the largest percentage growth is that each is already among the biggest carbon dioxide emitters annually. Data from 2016 from the European Union’s EDGAR program identifies China, the United States and India as the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitters.
If you get 3 percent of $1,000, you’ve gained $30. If you get 3 percent of $1,000,000, you’ve earned $30,000. Starting from a larger base value yields a larger increase in real terms — good when talking about money but very bad when talking about greenhouse gas emissions.
What’s even more alarming is how quickly emissions in China and India increased. In 1990, the United States was by far the biggest producer of carbon dioxide. The next-heaviest producer was what is now Russia.
Over the next 30 years, this is what happened.
Thanks in part to the economic slowdown that began a decade ago, U.S. emissions had been largely flat. Not in 2018.
The bigger concern is that China and India, while heavy producers of carbon dioxide, also have relatively low emissions when considered as a function of population. The billions of people in those two countries account for much lower emissions on average than does the average American or European.
Ironically, this growth in emissions internationally has been used by U.S. politicians, including President Trump, to downplay the need for the United States to take action on climate change. The argument has been that addressing greenhouse gas emissions will put American companies at a disadvantage while most of the emissions happen overseas anyway. The Paris climate agreement reached during the administration of President Barack Obama was the most significant (nonbinding) effort to encourage all countries to address the problem, hopefully kneecapping arguments that any one country (like the United States) would be disarming unilaterally.
Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement last year. Since then, he has further unwound proposals introduced by Obama to reduce U.S. emissions.
If China and India produced the same amount of carbon dioxide annually per resident as the United States does, China’s emissions would be twice what they are now — and India’s would be eight times larger.
The question is whether emissions in China and India (and globally) will continue at a pace that could match the emissions of the United States. Or, really, the question is whether emissions in those countries — and globally — can quickly be shifted downward.
So far, it doesn’t look promising.