As extreme weather events linked to the climate crisis continue, 2023 will most likely be the hottest year since at least 1850, when reliable temperature records begin. 1850 is also the year that is usually taken as a reference to explain the origin of the problem, which is fundamentally linked to fossil fuels, the main cause of greenhouse emissions. These gases accumulate for decades or centuries in the atmosphere and cause global warming. It is after the Industrial Revolution that humans begin to use coal, oil and gas on a large scale, which have triggered the climate crisis. But not all humanity is equally responsible. “Contributions to climate change are unequal,” warns a report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) that is published this Monday. “A minority of countries have contributed to the majority of emissions,” the study emphasizes.
The authors, when speaking of historical responsibilities, point directly to the richest and most developed nations: “Together, the United States of America and the European Union contributed almost a third of the total accumulated emissions (of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas) from 1850 to 2021″. Both powers accumulate, specifically, 32% of the CO₂ —19%, USA; 13%, the 27 members of the EU—expelled in these 171 years. The third main player in this story is China, which has already generated another 13% of the world’s carbon dioxide since 1850.
The data comes from the UNEP Emissions Gap Report, which warns that greenhouse gases continue to increase (in 2022 they grew by another 1.2%). The authors highlight that progress has been made since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, although the climate plans that the world’s nations have in place still lead to warming of between 2.5 and 2.9 degrees Celsius, far below above the security levels established in that pact eight years ago.
This is the fourteenth edition of the gap report, which year after year has provided an increasingly clear picture “of past and present emissions,” explains Joeri Rogelj, one of its main authors and professor of climate science and politics at the Imperial College London. “Not only in terms of how many emissions are being produced globally, but also by whom and what their effect on global warming has been,” he adds. But this year is the first time the study delves into countries’ historical contributions to global warming since 1850. “This information helps us better understand the current situation in which countries need to make decisions about how to solve the climate crisis.” “, Add.
If we look back, it is clear that those responsible historically must be found in the G20, whose members accumulate almost 80% of all the carbon dioxide expelled between 1850 and 2021. In addition to CO₂ emissions, the report adds another indicator : the contribution to global warming, less precise than in the case of carbon dioxide, but which also includes the estimate of the accumulated emissions of other greenhouse substances such as methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases. And the US is once again first, with 17%. They are followed in this ranking by China (12%), the EU (10%), Russia (6%) and India (6%).
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But the picture changes when current emissions are analyzed. China is, by far and for two decades now, the world’s leading emitter. In 2021, according to the UNEP report, it was responsible for 30% of all greenhouse gases. They are followed at a great distance by the US (11%), India (7%), the EU (7%) and Russia (5%).
Another useful indicator when determining responsibilities for climate change is emissions according to population. In this case, and only in the group of large emitters, the United States and Russia, both with close to 15 tons per capita in 2021, top the list. Next is China, with just over 10 tons per inhabitant (the world average is 6.5).
China, indeed, is behind the United States, but while the American economy has reduced its emissions per capita in the last 20 years (from about 22 tons to 15), the Asian country continues to increase them and has more than doubled them in the same period, from four to 10. What experts fear is that they will continue to grow in the case of China and other developing nations such as India, the most populated nation on the planet. This seriously compromises the international fight against climate change.
“To escape poverty and develop, people need clean and safe energy,” details Rogelj. “Historically, the main way that energy could be provided was fossil fuels, and developed countries have used them a lot, which generated a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming,” adds this expert. “The poorest countries have the inalienable right to develop and they need energy to do so,” he adds, “but fortunately today we also have low-carbon energy options that are cheap.” “With the right support, the poorest countries should be able to avoid the climate mistakes of the past,” concludes Rogelj.
UNEP highlights that “an increasing number of countries have reached their peak” emissions and have reduced “their absolute emissions for more than ten years.” That is to say, its peak has already arrived. 36 countries are at that point, of which 22 are members of the European Union, while another eight are high-income countries: Australia, the United States, Israel, Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Ukraine. Six other middle-income countries have also achieved it: Albania, Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico, North Macedonia and South Africa.
Reaching that peak as soon as possible and then drastically reducing emissions is what is needed to meet the Paris Agreement. This pact, signed in the French capital in 2015, establishes as its central objective that the increase in global temperature remains below two degrees by the end of the century, and to the extent possible at 1.5, always respecting to preindustrial levels. At the moment, warming is around 1.2 degrees and in the best case scenario, scientists propose that the 1.5 barrier will be exceeded and then fall. To achieve this, the first step is to reduce emissions by 42% in 2030. But the climate plans of the almost 200 countries that are in the Paris Agreement will lead to a reduction of between 2% and 9%, he estimates. the UNEP report. To stay below 2 degrees of warming, the cut in emissions in 2030 would have to be 28%, also far from what the climate plans now propose.
The response time is running out, although countries must periodically update their climate plans upwards. At the climate summit that starts on November 30 in Dubai, COP28, the first major assessment will be made and a call will be made to tighten emissions cuts. In 2025, all nations must present their new promises. “There is no person or economy on the planet that is not affected by climate change, so we must stop setting unwanted records for greenhouse gas emissions, global maximum temperatures and extreme weather,” Inger said this Monday. Andersen, executive director of UNEP.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has urged countries to strengthen their climate plans so that they “cover the entire economy and chart a course to end fossil fuels.” Specifically, he has asked the nations meeting in Dubai to commit “to tripling renewable energy capacity, doubling energy efficiency and bringing clean energy to all by 2030.” And to “phase out fossil fuels, with a clear time frame aligned with the 1.5 degree limit.”
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