The world is falling short of its climate goals. Four big emitters show why.
By Max Bearak and Nadja Popovich
Seven years after the Paris Agreement, in which leaders pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the world is still not on track to meet those goals.
New data released by Climate Action Tracker, an independent research group, before this week’s United Nations summit on climate change reveals the gap.
None of the world’s biggest emitters — China, the United States, the European Union and India — have reduced their emissions enough to meet the Paris Agreement goals. Together, the three countries and the European bloc account for more than half of historical emissions of planet-warming gases, which include carbon dioxide and methane. The United States is the largest historical emitter, and China is the largest current emitter. Their policies have an outsize impact on the future of Earth’s climate.
The outlook for how much the world is expected to warm has improved as governments have adopted policies to reduce emissions and renewable energy has grown. But it hasn’t been enough to steer the world toward the future envisioned by the Paris Agreement, which sought to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius and make a good-faith effort to stay at 1.5 degrees.
The pathways of the four biggest emitters reveal both progress toward lowering emissions and major challenges ahead.
Over the past two decades, China’s emissions have surged as the country has developed economically at a breakneck pace. Mainly because of its reliance on coal, one of the highest-emitting fuels, China now accounts for almost one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gases — more than the United States, Europe and Japan combined.
But China also has the world’s largest renewable energy projects. The country now produces, and uses, the vast majority of the world’s wind turbines and solar panels. It is the world’s leader in hydroelectric power and continues to expand its already large nuclear power capacity.
According to projections from Climate Action Tracker and other monitoring organizations, China’s emissions are nearing their peak, years ahead of when China’s government had pledged to reach that goal. Analyses show China’s rate of emissions neither growing nor declining from now until 2025, before gradually dropping off. China’s peak will occur at a far lower per-capita emissions level than countries like the United States.
Because China’s emissions are so high, however, no other country will be more crucial in lowering global emissions. Despite agreeing to do so at the last global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, China’s government has not released an updated set of emissions reductions pledges in 2022. Amid diplomatic tensions with the United States, Chinese officials suspended dialogue in early August between the two countries on climate goals.
The United States is, by far, the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, and remains one of the largest when measured per capita.
This year, the Biden administration passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which included the biggest infusion of federal funding the country has ever made in carbon-free energy initiatives. The law is projected to bring emissions from the United States down significantly, but not enough to fully comply with a pledge to cut emissions by at least half by 2030 when compared with 2005 levels.
Because of the country’s enormous historical role in emitting greenhouse gases, and its dominating position in the world’s biggest lending institutions, the U.S. government is expected by many others to play a leading role in both setting ambitious emissions reductions targets and helping smaller and poorer nations adapt to the destabilizing effects of the changing global climate.
Of the world’s biggest emitters, the European Union has been the most affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which fundamentally altered the global market for fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, the burning of which results in most of the world’s emissions.
In the short term, most of the 27 constituent countries in the European Union have scrambled to find new sources of fuel as part of efforts to reduce overreliance on Russian supply. Germany, for instance, has increased coal mining and coal imports to shore up energy reserves ahead of winter, when consumption rises. European countries are now facing record energy prices, some of which have fallen on consumers, generating demands for speedy solutions.
European leaders have laid out a plan to dramatically increase investment in renewable energy infrastructure. Imports of solar panels are soaring. Electric heat pumps are replacing gas in European homes at record rates.
The European Union is already well ahead of other major emitters in its transition from fossil fuels to renewables and is the closest of the big four to achieving its emissions reductions pledges.
India, like most developing countries, has not announced a specific timeline toward peaking its emissions. Its leaders assert that it should not be required to, given how little it has contributed to historical emissions and how much it needs to develop its economy in order to lift hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty.
India’s emissions are steadily increasing, though not anywhere close to the rate at which China’s did during its decades of rapid development. Like China, India has relied heavily on coal as a fuel, though it, too, has been investing in large-scale renewable projects.
This year, India modified its emissions reduction pledges but did not change its target date of 2070 for achieving net-zero emissions, the term used to indicate when a country cancels out its greenhouse gases through emissions cuts and measures to remove them from the atmosphere, like protecting forests that absorb and store carbon dioxide.
Projections show India’s emissions surpassing the European Union’s sometime next year. They also show India’s population surpassing China’s.
India’s per-capita emissions rate is very low: less than half of the European Union’s and less than a third of China’s.
Methodology: The Paris pledge pathways in the charts above reflect efforts that are unconditional and can be started based on a country’s own resources and capabilities. The 1.5 degree C-compatible ranges are based on two approaches used by scientists at Climate Action Tracker to assess how responsibility for global emissions reductions might be divided among countries: a modeled domestic pathway and an effort-sharing pathway. Annual emissions reflect carbon dioxide equivalent, a unit used to compare emissions from various greenhouse gases. Analyses for each country were completed between August and October 2022.