Climate change is one of the most constant topics in contemporary discussions. In few months, the next multilateral climate conference will take place, in Paris, and there is a lot of expectation regarding its results. Yet optimism is being exaggerated. By briefly analyzing key actors and actions that need to be undertaken to mitigate climate change and comparing to what is being promised to Paris will make it clearer.

The atmosphere is composed of several gases, in different proportions: the most abundant is Nitrogen (around 78%), followed by Oxygen (around 21%). Other gases’ shares are substantially small compared to the first two; however, their molecules are more efficient in interfering in the absorption of sunlight by the atmosphere (conserving heat near the Earth surface), thus leading to higher average temperatures in the long run – the greenhouse effect or global warming. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change lists six types of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) – the ones that are responsible for global warming: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). Of these, CO2 is of special concern, because its molecule is very stable and lasts for centuries in the atmosphere after emitted, repeating over and over the process of conserving heat near the Earth surface. Thus, put simply, climate is changing due to the increased concentration of CO2 – also referred as “carbon” – in the atmosphere.

Carbon emissions have increased importantly due to the discovery and disseminated use of fossil fuels as energy sources. Living beings are made of carbon; fossil fuels are formed by the anaerobic of dead buried organisms; when combusted, the carbon gets liberated in the atmosphere. Fossil fuels reserves are spread around Earth’s crust, differently: coal is the most commonly found; oil and gas, on the other hand, are relatively concentrated compared to coal. Concentrations of carbon are also different in different fossil fuels: coal, the most abundant and spread of them, is also the most carbon intensive. Burning fossil fuels to obtain energy is not the only factor causing climate change: land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF), industrial processes, agriculture and livestock, and waste are also considered.

Globally speaking, however, the combustion of fossil fuels is the main driver of carbon emissions. Fossil fuels answered for 81.72% of global Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES – total amount of energy that is used in a country) in 2012 (IEA, 2014), and combustion of fossil fuels answered for 78% of total carbon emissions’ increase from 1970 to 2010 (IPCC, 2014). Given this bulk of emissions from burning fossil fuels to obtain energy, energy decarbonization – enhancing energy efficiency, in order to reduce energy use, and switching from fossil fuels to low carbon sources of energy (nuclear and renewables), in order to reduce carbon intensity of TPES – is key to mitigate climate change. And it will only be effective if the greatest carbon emitters undertake it.

Currently, China is the greatest carbon emitter: its emissions answered for 22.44% of world’s total carbon emissions in 2012 (WRI, 2015). It is followed by the United States (12.23%), the European Union (8.66%), India (6.06%), Russia (4.73%), Indonesia (4.16%), Brazil (3.83%), Japan (2.53%), Canada (1.79%), and Mexico (1.57%). These 10 countries – the world’s top carbon emitters – answered together for 68% of total world’s emissions in 2012 (WRI, 2015). If emissions only from fossil fuel combustion are considered, the numbers are quite similar: China comes first, with 25.86% of total world’s emissions from fossil fuel burning in 2012, followed by the United States (15.99%), the European Union (10.96%), India (6.15%), Russia (5.22%), Japan (3.85%), Canada (1.68%), Brazil (1.38%), and Indonesia and Mexico (1.37% each) (IEA, 2014). Together, they accounted for 73.83% of total world’s emissions from fossil fuel combustion in 2012.

Given the bulk of carbon emissions concentrated in few countries, it is key to check the trajectory of their recent carbon emissions; and given the impact of energy, especially combustion of fossil fuels, in total carbon emissions, it is important to check the recent trajectory of energy use, especially fossil fuels, in these countries as well.

When 2012 numbers are compared with 2005 ones we can see that the results are different from what is needed. China’s energy use (TPES) has increased 68.55% from 2005 to 2012, and the United States’ has increased 73.78% – in fact, from the top 10 GHG emitters, only the European Union and Japan had lower TPES in 2012 compared to 2005 (IEA, 2014). In China and India, the greatest emerging economies, carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion have increased 62.17% and 70.29%, respectively; carbon intensity of TPES increased 11.37% in China and 15.88% in India, confirming that coal, abundant in both countries and very carbon intensive, is still the main source of energy for them. In the United States, carbon intensity of TPES decreased 8.49% (IEA, 2014) due to the substitution of coal by shale gas in generating electricity – a step forward for sure, but shale is still a fossil fuel, which combustion produces more emissions than nuclear or renewables.

Besides, in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) (a commitment that all UNFCCC members should submit prior to the Paris Conference, indicating how they are proposing to reduce their GHG emissions by 2030), the European Union, the United States, Russia Canada, China, Japan and Mexico (Brazil, Indonesia and India have not yet submitted their INDCs) point that even if they understand the seriousness of climate change and what is needed to tackle it, several of them are not willing to undertake ambitious commitments to mitigate it. True, all of them point the energy sector as one whose emissions must be reduced, and affirm that domestic policies are already being (or will start soon) undertaken in order to do that. Yet, only the European Union and Russia pledged to reduce emissions compared to 1990’s levels; the United States, Canada, China and Japan set 2005 as baseline – Japan even speaks about 2013! –, while Mexico promises reductions regarding a business as usual scenario (it projects the emissions it would have in 2030 without any mitigation measure and pledge to reduce emissions compared to this scenario).

It is important to clarify that an agreement in Paris would, of course, mean an advance considering current situation, in which only a few countries have undertaken international commitments to reduce their carbon emissions. But given what is being promised, it will not be enough to really push climate change mitigation. Further action from key actors, undertaken in uni, bi or plurilateral basis, is necessary.


INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE – IPCC (2014): Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
International Energy Agency – IEA (2014): Key World Energy Statistics 2014. Available at <http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld2014.pdf>, access 01 May 2015.
OBSERVATORIO DO CLIMA (2015): Sistema de Estimativa de Emissão de Gases de Efeito Estufa (base de dados). Available at <http://seeg.eco.br/emissoes-totais/>, access 05 Aug 2015.
UNITED NATIONS FRAMEWORK CONVENTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE – UNFCCC (2015): Intended Nationally Determined Contributions of the Parties to the UNFCCC. Available at <http://www4.unfccc.int/submissions/INDC/Submission%20Pages/submissions.aspx>, access 05 Aug 2015.
WORLD RESOURCES INSTITUTE – WRI (2015): CAIT Climate Data Explorer (database). Available at <http://cait.wri.org/>, access 05 Aug 2015.

Larissa Basso is a PhD Candidate at the Institute of International Relations of University of Brasília and member of the International System at the Anthropocene and Climate Change Research Network. Contact: <larissabasso@gmail.com>

Obs.: All percentages presented are calculations of the author based on numbers of the databases. The author is the only one responsible for the content and opinions expressed in the text. The text has nothing that could be considered illegal or defamatory.

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