Which Nations Have the Most Ambitious Plans for Reducing Carbon Emissions?
A reflection from UMN COP26 attendee Forest Isbell.
My name is Forest Isbell. I am an ecologist who studies biodiversity, including how it buffers ecosystems during and after extreme climate events. At the University of Minnesota, I am an associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, the associate director of Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, and a fellow at the Institute on the Environment.
It has been exciting to attend the first week of the COP26 meeting. My favorite part is engaging with folks beyond the scientific community, including other people in our UMN delegation of observers. I am learning how science informs, or not, the ongoing discussions and negotiations among nations.
As I experience my first COP, I am contemplating the goals established for these international negotiations. What does success look like? Which nations have the most ambitious plans for reducing carbon emissions? As a scientist, I will take a moment to consider this quantitatively.
A high-level goal of COP26 is to have all nations commit to net zero carbon emissions by mid-century. This goal strikes me as inequitable in multiple ways. First, it ignores the fact that the Global North has emitted the vast majority of all the carbon pollution in the past. This point is widely appreciated, and it was noted by many speakers throughout the conference. The ongoing discussions of finance options are meant, in part, to address the inequity of historical emissions. However, the finance being offered is often loans that may perpetuate inequality, rather than address it. Some have called for reparations, rather than loans.
A second issue, which I did not hear acknowledged at COP26, is that the goal for all nations to reach net zero by mid-century allows the Global North to continue emitting much more carbon per person in the future. Given that per capita carbon emissions are much higher in the Global North than in the Global South, expecting all nations to reach net zero at the same time in the future (i.e., by mid-century) guarantees that most future carbon emissions will come from the Global North. Furthermore, given that the Global North has more resources for mitigation than the Global South, it is likely that long after net zero is reached, carbon emissions from the Global North will continue to exceed those from the Global South.
A third issue, which I also did not hear acknowledged at COP26, is that most of the future population growth is projected to occur in the Global South. This exacerbates some of the issues described above because nations with growing populations will have to work much harder to reduce per capita carbon emissions than those with stable or declining populations.
To quantify discrepancies in past national carbon emissions and current and future per capita carbon emissions, let’s compare them between the US and India. The US currently aims to achieve net zero by 2050, though it has not yet passed legislation that would allow it to reach that goal. India announced this week that it aims to reach net zero by 2070, rather than 2050. At COP26 and in the media, I heard India’s timeline repeatedly criticized as unambitious. Is it, though? All numbers reported herein come from the most recent global carbon budget (Friedlingstein et al. 2021).
In the past, since 1959, the US has emitted approximately 82,777 Mt C, whereas India has emitted only 14,136 Mt C over the same period. In other words, in the last 60 years, the US has emitted about six times as much carbon dioxide as India. If the US stopped emitting carbon today and India continued to emit carbon at its 2019 level of 717 MtC per year, India would catch up to the US’s historical cumulative carbon emissions in 2117, nearly 100 years from now. These further carbon emissions would, of course, create further inequalities, and I am not proposing that any nation spends the coming decades catching up to the cumulative carbon emissions of the world’s worst polluters. My point is simply that India’s goal for achieving net zero in 2070 is nearly a half century before the time it would take for India to catch up to the historical cumulative carbon emissions of the US, even if the US stopped its carbon emissions today and India did not reduce its carbon emissions at the national scale over the next century. The extra 20 years, between 2050 and 2070, that India is giving itself to get to net zero would barely begin to correct this discrepancy in historical cumulative carbon emissions.
Furthermore, in addition to accounting for discrepancies in past national carbon emissions, it is also necessary to consider discrepancies in current carbon emissions on a per capita basis. At present, India emits, on average, about 0.52 t C per person per year, which is only about 12% of the 4.37 t C per person per year emitted in the US. To put it another way, in 2019, each person in the US emitted about as much carbon as about eight or nine people in India. Perhaps we should expect wealthy nations to reduce their per capita carbon emissions to the levels currently found in the Global South before celebrating their carbon emissions reductions plans as ambitious.
Finally, in addition to accounting for discrepancies in past national carbon emissions and current per capita carbon emissions, it is also necessary to consider discrepancies in future population growth rates. Note that even in the hypothetical scenario for the future considered above, in which India continues to emit the same amount of carbon per year at the national level, it would need to exhibit substantial reductions in per capita carbon emissions, given its projected population growth in the coming decades.
Who then is ambitious? India’s goal of achieving net zero by 2070 appears, at least by my assessment, much more ambitious than the US’s goal of reaching net zero by 2050. Other nations will need to be much more ambitious than India to reach the goals they have established. For example, in the coming decades, Nigeria’s population is projected to grow much more than India’s, and its current levels of per capita carbon emissions are already much lower than India’s. Furthermore, Nigeria plans to achieve net zero earlier than India, by 2060, rather than by 2070. Thus, based on the principles outlined here, Nigeria may be among the most ambitious nations.
What would the US need to do to keep pace with Nigeria’s stated level of ambition? First, the US would need to remove 99% (i.e., 81,723 Mt C) of the carbon it previously added to the atmosphere, or pay reparations accordingly, to match Nigeria’s past national carbon emissions (note that this number would be larger if more than the last 60 years were considered). Second, the US would need to immediately cut current per capita carbon emissions by 96%, to 0.17 t C per person per year, to match Nigeria’s current per capita rate of carbon emissions. Third, in the coming decades, the US would need to further reduce its per capita carbon emissions rate, down to 0.08 t C per person per year, to match what Nigeria would need to achieve to maintain its current rate of national carbon emissions for a population that is projected by the UN to have more than twice as many people by 2060. This assumes Nigeria achieves net zero by mitigation, rather than by further emissions reduction.
Thus, given their historical and current rates of carbon emissions, I would conclude that the US’s goal of reaching net zero by 2050 is far less ambitious than India’s goal of reaching net zero by 2070 or Nigeria’s goal of achieving net zero by 2060. We in the Global North should refrain from self-congratulations until after we: (1) remove much of our historical cumulative carbon emissions or pay reparations; (2) reduce our current per capita carbon emissions to the levels in the Global South; and (3) keep pace with the future reductions in per capita carbon emissions that many nations in the Global South aim to achieve, given their growing populations.
At the same time, I am excited to hear from many people who have attended many COP meetings in past year that this year’s meeting has more engagement by experts in finance than any previous meeting. To me, many of the commitments being made seem sincere, even if some people are dismissing them as greenwashing. The people I am meeting at COP26 seem fully committed to addressing this challenge we all face. It is exciting to see so many different areas of expertise brought together in one place.