In light of the new Biden administration’s commitment to have the US abide by the Paris Agreement on climate change, I thought it might be interesting to take a little look into CO2 emissions by country. For the purpose of this exercise I took data on CO2 emissions from the EU’s Joint Research Center (source). The Europeans seem to be the most concerned about this issue, so I figured they should have the best data on it (and since the data is European, note that the tons mentioned throughout are metric tons). To derive per capita data and per $GDP data, I took population numbers from Wikipedia and took GDP numbers from the World Bank (source). I chose to look only at the top 20 largest CO2 emitting countries, but since they collectively contribute 78% of world CO2 emissions I figure this is sufficient to get an accurate look into current trends on the matter. For the charts I pared this down to the top 10, as 20 was a bit too unwieldy for visualization.
As is expected, the top emitters are all nations with large populations and large economies. More developed nations tend to produce more CO2 per citizen but also tend to produce less CO2 per dollar of GDP output. The top 3 countries alone produce half of the world’s CO2, but at the same time they produce 44% of the world’s GDP and have 40% of the world’s population. The top 10 produce 67% of CO2 and 61% of GDP with 49% of the population. The top 20 produce 78% of CO2 and 78% of GDP with 60% of the population. It is clear that CO2 is related to GDP, which is obvious when one considers that the most popular sources of power generation produce CO2, and power is used in all aspects of modern, developed economies.
The Paris Agreement is the latest attempt at a globally-coordinated response to the issue of climate change. Drafted under the auspices of the United Nations in late 2015, it was ratified and went into effect in 2016. The gist of the agreement is that each country will set its own targets for reducing its CO2 emissions over time and adhere to those targets. The agreement has no actual enforcement mechanism, which combined with the fact that each country is responsible for setting its own benchmarks means that in effect it is a toothless statement of intent, and not much more. The agreement also includes encouragement for more developed nations to help less developed nations reach their goals through grants and other financial measures, pledging $100B per year towards this effort (although, again, no enforcement mechanisms). This agreement has been accepted by all but six nations in the world.
Now, let us look at the progress that has been made under this agreement. For the purposes of this assessment, I compare the CO2 numbers from 2015 (the year before the agreement went into effect) to the CO2 numbers from 2019 (the last year for which my data-source has data). The results of this comparison are as follows.
From this we can see that while some nations have reduced their CO2 output, the net effect of the agreement has been about what could be expected from an accord drafted as this one was. The United States reduced CO2 output by 142 Megatons/yr, Japan reduced CO2 output by 74 Megatons/yr, and the EU collectively reduced CO2 output by 188 Megatons/yr. On the other hand, Indonesia has increased their CO2 output by 133 Megatons/yr, India increased CO2 output by 304 Megatons/yr, and China increased CO2 output by 864 Megatons/yr. Globally, CO2 emissions have increased by 1,769 Megatons/yr (a 5% increase) since the year before the Paris Agreement went into effect. It should be noted that all entities mentioned by name in this paragraph are on track to meet their 2020 goals, so it can be concluded that the Paris Agreement is a success!
Or is it? If CO2 emissions are an actual issue, then this agreement has so far been an abject failure at curbing them. All of the reductions made by nations committed to reducing CO2 have been wiped out and then some by nations less interested in this endeavor. But, money has still changed hands, with billions of dollars going towards green energy and carbon mitigation efforts in the developing world. From the perspective of developing nations, however, this has been a success. Not only have they gotten handouts, but they have been able to continue to develop their economies with the CO2 intensive energy sources that produce cheap, reliable energy that is the lifeblood of the modern world. Perhaps their leaders do not see CO2 to be as much of a problem as the climate crusaders see it. Or perhaps they are making the calculated choice that if they make their nations rich that they will be able to deal with the issues caused by a warmer world. Even if the worst came to pass and the current ice age ended with the complete melting of the polar ice caps, most of the land in the world will still be above water. It would be a major disruption, but humanity has adapted to greater change in the past. And it is always easier to adapt if one is rich rather than poor. Until a suitable (reliable, abundant, inexpensive) alternative to CO2 emitting power generation can be developed, it is probably safe to say that the world will continue increasing its CO2 emissions year over year as more and more nations develop and bring their citizens into modern standards of living.