The first COP (conference of the parties) was held in Berlin 1995 to engage the world in a collaborative response to the threat of climate change. The damaging effects on our environment of CO2 emissions, due to human activity, is now generally accepted, excluding a few lingering science – or reality – deniers. COPs, most recently COP27 in Egypt, are now held annually, reflecting the need for urgent progress in securing a habitable planet.
An understanding that we were in danger of reaching an irreversible tipping point beyond which large areas of the earth would become unproductive and uninhabitable made an agreement on a limit to the rise in global temperature both necessary and urgent.
Also essential would be a plan for achieving this, with countries accepting appropriate proportional responsibility. But a deep delve into the statistics of carbon emissions soon reveals the problem with this: issues of where and by whom climate change is caused are highly complex, as is the question of who should shoulder responsibility. What’s worse is that the more we interrogate the statistics, the less certain it is how to reach solutions. But find them we must while not allowing too much statistical analysis to get in the way.
The Paris agreement: a temperature rise no greater than 1.5°C
We are still unable to precisely define the increased global temperature at which the tipping point happens. We can model what might happen theoretically, but some assumptions involved will always be just that – assumptions.
In the absence of certainty, it makes sense to take a ‘better safe than sorry’ precautionary approach rather than hope some new technological solution will turn up to save us from having to change our behaviour. In 2015 at the Paris COP21 the position taken, based on the best evidence at the time, was that a 2°C rise in average surface temperature across the planet would extensively damage the environment. Accordingly, 1.5°C was agreed as the limit not to be breached.
Understanding the threat: statistics can deceive
COP activities since have concentrated on a number of key issues:
- Identifying and better understanding all the threats to the environment;
- Securing pledges from every country to reduce all greenhouse emissions in support of staying within the 1.5C temperature rise; and
- Getting an agreement that the long-term CO2 emitters (long-established industrial societies and oil producing countries), will financially support historically low-emitting but highly impacted countries that typically have much smaller economies with which to take defensive action.
The statistics employed to explain climate change don’t lie, but they can deceive. Take, for example, tables or graphs that invite us to judge which countries or political blocks are most responsible for threatening our environment with CO2 emissions. Viewed in isolation, given the complexity of the subject, these fail to tell the whole story. When we delve more deeply, viewing the facts from different perspectives, a new picture emerges – one that helps to explain why climate change is so difficult to deal with.
Perspective 1: Top five emitters of CO2 in 2021
|CO2 emissions in megatonnes*
|% of global total
|EU (inc UK)
This example of ‘the stats’ quickly draws us into a judgment of who can make the biggest difference, and, by implication, which countries are less obliged to contribute to the solution. It has the appearance of scientific rigour – lots of numbers and percentages – and conforms to a rational discipline – first identify where the problem lies and then you can start to find the solution.
So, let’s all boo China. A seemingly logical conclusion that is also very convenient: by making it largely China’s fault, we can complacently tell ourselves whatever the UK achieves in reducing carbon emissions it’s not going to make the slightest difference. So, let’s just carry on as usual and hope China commits to reducing their emissions before it’s too late.
Of course, there is a ‘but’, indeed several, as the next rather different perspectives will make clear.
Perspective 2: CO2 emissions as an average per person in each population
The table below of average emissions per person includes the five biggest emitters in 2021 (see above) and intersperses them with a sample selection of other countries’ stats. Note the differences from the ranking above.
|Average CO2 emissions per person in tonnes* (in 2021)
|(Many countries sit at 6.3 – 1.9)
|(Many countries rank below India < 1.9)
Thus, ranked on the basis of emissions per head, the five countries listed in perspective 1 are no longer the front runners or even in the same order. The certainty with which we might have concluded where the prime responsibility lies is now blurred.
Perspective 3: The established industrial economies have outsourced much of their historic manufacturing production and the associated emissions to the developing industrial economies
Perspectives 1 and 2 are ‘territorial’ statistics. They measure the CO2 emitted from energy sources and industrial production within the geographic boundaries of the countries listed. But this gives a false reading of CO2 responsibility.
Over recent decades the emerging economies, such as India, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea and Brazil, have become the predominant global manufacturing centres. In outsourcing production of all manner of inexpensive goods to these emerging economies, western countries have also been able to outsource blame for the carbon emissions that go with their manufacture.
Adjustments in data presentation are now being made to reflect this reality, in some cases causing significant changes in our understanding of where the emissions truly ‘belong’ and allocating them accordingly.
Perspective 4: The 20 biggest emitters of carbon dioxide by country/block emit roughly 80% of global emissions
There are 195 recognised countries in the world plus a few small administrative areas not defined as countries in their own right. Using the data set corresponding to perspective 1, China and America together emit about 45% of the global CO2 emissions.
By the time we get to the 20th placed country in the biggest emitters list, using the perspective 1 data, their contribution has dropped to less than 1% of the global total. A dangerous conclusion is that the 175 countries that contribute less than 1% to the global total can make only a small difference, so there is no benefit to their reducing their omissions. But every tonne of CO2 that is not emitted into the atmosphere is a tonne worth saving.
Perspective 5: Emissions that are difficult to allocate
In many listings of emissions by geographically bounded territories there are two entries listed as if they were countries, under the headings ‘international aviation’ and ‘international shipping’. These reflect an otherwise unidentified contribution to global emissions caused by aircraft and ships that crisscross the globe with increasingly diverse commercial loads. They are not only difficult to identify but difficult to allocate accurately to the countries that ultimately consume them.
These ‘hard emissions’ represent 3% of global emissions. That is equivalent to say three of the European countries, which includes the UK, whose emissions are at the 1% level.
Perspective 6: The emphasis on CO2 emissions has overlooked the effect of methane (CH4) emissions
By far the largest greenhouse gas emission by weight is carbon dioxide and once emitted it can remain in the atmosphere for between 300 and 1,000 years. Another greenhouse gas, methane (CH4), remains for approximately 12 years. However, methane produces 84 times greater warming while present in the earth’s atmosphere than the same weight of CO2.
It is now estimated that 30% of current warming is produced by methane, which comes mainly from farming and diary production and as a by-product discharge from drilling and mining operations in pursuit of oil, gas and other extracted materials. Yet another source of methane is from ‘sinks’ which are natural ground types that hold methane until temperature rises cause the peat, a common ground type in the UK, to release its previously trapped methane.
A major belt of peat in Siberia’s permafrost regions is already showing signs of warming, releasing increasing amounts of methane as temperatures rise, in a process that feeds itself. Perversely, this is referred to technically as ‘positive feedback’, when in relation to the environment it is anything but positive.
So, in the short term, methane becomes an important greenhouse gas to reduce because it has a higher warming effect than even CO2.
Perspective 7: Recognition of land use, land use change and forest (LULUCF) influences on the CO2 present in the atmosphere
The predominant measurement and analysis of greenhouse gas emissions are for CO2 emitted from burning fossil fuels used as power sources for manufacturing processes, heating, commercial and leisure travel.
The collection of LULUCF data recognises that changes in the earth’s natural ecosystems – often instigated by human intervention – play a major role in how CO2 is added or removed from the environment, which in turn influences progress towards a net zero emissions outcome. It is a complex data collection process with procedures and reliability varying from country to country, so it is mentioned here as an emerging component of analysis in the emission of CO2. Those wishing to read more about the subject should refer to this European Commission report.
Perspective 8: Progress towards restricting heating to 1.5°C by 2050
In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicated that to limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2050, CO2 emissions globally needed to peak by 2025 and be cut by 43% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels. But the current total climate ‘pledges’ (countries’ intentions) globally lead to a 10.6% increase instead.
Climate change: a complex picture and an enormous challenge
As we have seen then, any analysis of climate change based on models of territorially bounded emissions – however precise these may seem to be – will inevitably be superficial. It sets up a competitive and distorted view of individual countries’ responsibilities and leads to false conclusions as to what is both reasonable and necessary to combat climate change.
However, the truer picture is difficult to deal with. The big numbers attached to emissions at national or global level are so enormous they defy public engagement, while the small numbers, at the level of individual contributions, seem insignificant.
In the middle of all this complexity, we have countries trying to judge what they are willing and able to contribute, individuals trying work out what they can do and, given the enormity of the challenge, if it’s worth their efforts.
In the rest of this series of articles we try and untangle those issues.
Previous articles in this series are available here. Or access the next part now: ‘Is COP part of the problem in greenhouse gas emissions?’