The Haze Surrounding Climate Mitigation Statistics

Suzi Tart, OECD Environment Directorate

How have CO2 and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions changed since 1990? Three different visuals tell three very different stories. Which perspective offers the most clarity?

Perspective #1:

Perspecctive 1

This first visual shows the percent increase or decrease of GHG emissions.[1] It is pretty predictable, telling us the story with which we are most familiar. The bubbles of China and the US are the obvious giants in the room. Together they contributed 35% of global GHG emissions in 2010.

China conspicuously dominates the map with a 178% increase in its emissions from 1990-2010. Much of China’s explosive economic growth has been dependent upon coal, so this is not surprising. India and Indonesia’s bubbles pale in comparison with that of China’s—yet their growth rates of 108% and 73% are still significant, leaving Asia with an average 95% increase in emissions. Oceania also witnessed a fairly significant increase of 22%, yet compared to Asia, this seems miniscule.

The giant bubble on the other side of the room represents the United States. Unlike China, which has a relatively small yellow core compared to its red layer, the U.S. has a relatively large core and small red layer. While both countries have increased their emissions over time, the United States has witnessed slower growth, and its GHG emissions have been on a declining trend since 2007.

Also noteworthy is Russia’s green bubble (representing a decrease, see page 51 of the linked publication). Keeping in mind that Russia transitioned to a market economy and experienced a collapse of its carbon-intensive industries in the 1990s, it is not that surprising. Nor are all those tiny green bubbles dotting the European Union, which has been championing climate change action. While the colour of the bubbles is important to note, so too, is their size. Although Russia is green like the rest of Europe, its fugitive emissions from the oil and gas sector alone amount to more than the total GHG emissions of Spain.

Perspective #2:

Perspective 2

The second visual tells a more intriguing story. This one depicts CO2 emissions in relation to population size. Here, China’s bubble appears quite small…even smaller than that of Hong Kong. What is even more striking is how big the bubbles in the Middle East are. Qatar leads the world on this map, with the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia not far behind. Rich in oil and with high demand for energy and transport, these countries have larger bubbles than they did on the previous visual.

Another significant trend is the relative size of the bubbles for some island and port economies. Singapore and Chinese Taipei stand out. Trinidad & Tobago also appears unusually large and isolated. The country has strong petrochemical and power generation sectors, which are behind these massive relative emissions. Some have noted that foreign companies largely own these industries, and that most of their production is exported. Such issues open the debate as to which countries’ bubbles should actually represent the emissions—those where the emissions are produced, or those where the emissions are consumed. While it is interesting to think about this in terms of the global economy, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) ruled on this matter in the 1990s, deciding once and for all that emission inventories would be based on production.

Once again, Europe is covered with green (declining) bubbles, although they are bigger in this visual. Luxembourg, which enjoys the second highest GDP per capita in the world and has low taxes on road fuels, has much larger per capita emissions than many other European countries. The high per capita emissions also applies to the Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia (EECCA) region, where many of the bubbles are not that much smaller than the bubbles of the United States and Canada.

Perspective #3:

Perspective 3

The third and final visual is strikingly green. Every continent has achieved an average negative rate of emissions per unit of gross domestic product using purchasing power parity rates (GDP PPP). That’s great news for the planet—you’d almost be fooled into thinking we’re winning the war on emissions. It indicates that most nations are now successfully decoupling GHG emissions from GDP growth. Technology has allowed countries to continue to grow while producing fewer emissions.

At first glance, Zimbabwe seems to be leading the pack. Unfortunately, the size of its bubble is most likely related to the hyperinflation it experienced in the early 2000s, and larger economic woes that have affected it as a result. EECCA shows up yet again, even more so than in the second visual. This testifies to the dominant coal, oil and gas industries in many of these countries, with the shrinking bubble sizes evidence of their efforts to clean up these industries—alternative energy production and energy efficiency targets are on the rise in many of these countries.

Does bubble size really matter?

As COP21 edges closer, accusations will fly faster, and fingers are sure to be pointed with greater passion. Yet this is a global problem and we all pollute and breathe the same air, so it is much like the right hand pointing at the left. Equity issues always arise during climate change negotiations. Some countries pollute a lot, others only a little. Some countries are producers, others consumers. Industrialised countries that burned fossil fuels in the past have contributed most to the situation we are in today. Developing countries seem to be the ones paying the biggest price yet are starting to burn more fossil fuel.

These maps show that all countries can play a role in limiting climate change. In fact, it will be impossible to combat climate change unless the world’s economies are fully committed. The sheer quantity of emissions is a crucial factor to consider in the negotiations; yet so too, is the amount of effort countries put into solving the issue of climate change. Perhaps if we used the colour and size of countries’ bubbles to assess effort, the world might see greater results.

Useful links

OECD on the road to COP21

[1] Data is taken from the EDGAR database, which includes partial coverage of emissions from land use, land-use change and forestry (direct emissions from forest fires, emissions from decay of aboveground biomass that remains after logging and deforestation, emissions from peat fires and decay of drained peat soils).

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  1. Rick Barnett - 10/12/2015 Reply

    I agree with your conclusion that “the sheer quantity of emissions is a crucial factor” and appreciate your overview of the complexity of using emissions as the measure of success for the global response. Since this approach has essentially failed since Rio, perhaps success should be determined by global carbon instead of emissions. Rather than seeking consensus about who does what, and who pays, if all nations agreed to “do their best” until rising global carbon is buffered, more money would go into emission reduction than debate and disappointment.
    Any chance of this happening?

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