The distribution of emissions between countries

The distribution of emissions between countries

One of the central issues of debate in international climate change negotiations is that of measurement, reporting and verification (MRV), mainly with regard to mitigation actions. However, similar MRV challenges apply to defining the level of emissions around the world. National statistics on greenhouse gas emissions tend to vary between publications. Figures are not always reliable over long timeframes and are often not comparable between countries. Those in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) database, for example, are available with a two-year lag for developed countries and sometimes a 20-year lag for developing countries, making them impossible to scrutinise side by side.

The first major problem in emissions calculations is that of accuracy. Most agencies, such as the UNFCCC, build their central databases from nationally submitted accounts. Despite concerted efforts towards transparency, there remain questions regarding the credibility of statistics provided by self-interested parties. That issue aside, and with the best intentions, some countries, especially developing countries, have neither the resources nor the institutional frameworks necessary to acquire emissions data on a sectoral level. The IPCC provides a common basis for the measurement of emissions, but meaningful inventories require tracking over a wide range of activities, sometimes at the individual entity level. This becomes more difficult in developing countries where economic activities are less standardised. However, even in developed countries these tasks can be challenging, as has been demonstrated by the findings of random audits of national greenhouse gas emissions inventories carried out by the UNFCCC. According to a 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office, even the inventories from developed countries have error margins of sometimes more than 10 per cent.

Accuracy also suffers from the status of the science, which is still in development. Agricultural activities, waste management, and in fact most non-energy based emission sources are difficult to assess. This is further complicated by the dispersed nature of such activities, requiring multiple sources to be tracked simultaneously. In the face of such difficulties, the science is improving at a fast pace, allowing more detail and accuracy in calculations. But such improvements introduce another complication, which is that of consistency over time. For example, if figures from the 2009 Australian National Greenhouse Gas Inventory and then those of the 2010 inventory are to be taken and compared at face value, it would seem that within 12 months Australian emissions decreased by 3.5 per cent, which is not the case. Australian emissions actually probably decreased by just one per cent between 2007 and 2008 (primarily due to the global economic downturn). Improved assessment methodologies led to an increase in measurement accuracy but this then rendered meaningless any direct comparison between the annual figures.

Also, 2008 is the first year of the Kyoto Protocol commitment period, so inventories from 2008 onwards must comply with rules of the convention, the accounting methods of which are unique. This is another important consideration. For the numbers to be useful they must be properly understood in the context of the specific accounting method. The Kyoto Protocol accounting method has different rules and assumptions to that of the UNFCCC. Australia’s proposed emissions trading scheme of 2009 presented yet another set of possible accounting rules. Each set of accounting methods differs - for example in how vegetation is treated, or whether harvested wood adds to the tally - and each can alter the final number. However, this should not be seen as a limiting factor to all forms of analysis; as long as the accounting method is openly declared, it can be taken into consideration and correctly interpreted.

A common confusion in reading greenhouse gas emissions inventories relates to the variable being reported. Some tables provide emissions statistics in tonnes of carbon, others in tonnes of CARBON DIOXIDE, and others still in tonnes of CARBON DIOXIDE EQUIVALENT. Between carbon dioxide and carbon a simple conversion factor can be applied. Multiplying by the relative molecular weights (44/12), the mass of carbon dioxide is 3.5 times greater than that of carbon. Carbon dioxide equivalence considers all greenhouse gases on a common reference where the relative ability of one kilogram of a greenhouse gas to warm the atmosphere over a specified period of time (usually 100 years) is compared with one kilogram of carbon dioxide. Each set of figures can be of value, but again, the reader must understand the meaning behind them.

Another common oversight is to disregard whether each country inventory includes emissions relating to land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF). The International Energy Agency periodically publishes global statistics on carbon dioxide emissions, but these are emissions from fuel combustion only. Arguably, almost 85 per cent of global emissions are related to energy use, and therefore, in many cases these statistics are sufficient. However, in some instances they can be deceiving. Indonesia is a case in point. More than 80 per cent of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions result from deforestation. If ranked on a comparative table that does not include LULUCF, Indonesia is only the fifteenth most emissions intensive country. However if LULUCF emissions are included, Indonesia immediately moves to third position, after China and the United States.

Despite the difficulties associated with comparing national greenhouse gas emissions data, some analysis is possible. The Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre (CDIAC) set of raw data is used for the purposes of monitoring the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and is relatively current. The data are collected in line with IPCC guidelines and UNFCCC definitions for applying them. However, the data do not include reliable LULUCF figures and, as indicated in the MDG indicator definitions, ‘trend data are more reliable than data comparisons between countries’.

The first two tables below are from CDIAC, the last one is from the World Resources Institute (WRI).

Top 20 countries - emissions in 2007 (CDIAC)

Country

Carbon dioxide emissions
(thousand metric tonnes)

China

6538367

United States

5838381

India

1612362

Russian Federation

1537357

Japan

1254543

Germany

787936

Canada

557340

United Kingdom

539617

Korea, Republic of

503321

Iran (Islamic Republic of)

495987

Mexico

471459

Italy

456428

South Africa

433527

Saudi Arabia

402450

Indonesia

397143

Australia

374045

France

371757

Brazil

368317

Spain

359260

Ukraine

317537

In terms of absolute emissions China and the US have been ranked first and second respectively since 2006 when China overtook the US to take the top spot. Australia, because of its relatively small population, is ranked sixteenth in absolute terms.

Top 20 countries - per capita emissions in 2007 (CDIAC)

Country

Carbon dioxide emissions
per person
(thousand metric tonnes)

Qatar

55.42951

Netherlands Antilles

32.46963

United Arab Emirates

31.05928

Kuwait

30.2145

Bahrain

29.57502

Trinidad and Tobago

27.88477

Aruba

23.01874

Luxembourg

22.82549

Brunei Darussalam

19.76084

Falkland Islands

19.67979

United States

18.91439

Australia

17.93647

Canada

16.91713

Saudi Arabia

16.3065

Estonia

15.2459

Kazakhstan

14.75802

Faeroe Islands

14.12275

Nauru

14.08589

Oman

13.68851

Gibraltar

13.12819

When total emissions are divided by population, Australia moves into eleventh position. In fact, when emissions from deforestation are included, Australia's per capita emissions are closer to 25 tonnes, and amongst the highest. Large developing countries such as China, India, South Africa and Brazil, although considered high absolute emitters, have low emissions per capita. This is because these countries have large growing populations, with widespread levels of poverty and low levels of electrification in rural areas.

Top 15 countries - cumulative emissions between 1850 and 2002 (WRI)

Country

Per cent of world

United States

29.3

Russia

8.1

China

7.6

Germany

7.3

United Kingdom

6.3

Japan

4.1

France

2.9

India

2.2

Ukraine

2.2

Canada

2.1

Poland

2.1

Italy

1.6

SouthAfrica

1.2

Australia

1.1

Mexico

1.0

Because it is the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, not the flow, that causes the enhanced greenhouse effect it can be argued that the cumulative emissions of a country determine its subsequent responsibility. On this basis, the US is responsible for almost a third of global emissions.

What these tables demonstrate is that emissions data, like most statistics, can be presented in a number of different ways to substantiate sometimes opposing arguments. As well as being subject to inaccuracies, the distribution of emissions between countries is also bedevilled by interpretation.

Further reading and sources:

PT. Pelangi Energi Abadi Citra Enviro (PEACE), Executive Summary: Indonesia and Climate Change Working Paper on Current Status and Policies, March 2007.

World Resource Institute, Navigating the Numbers: Greenhouse Gas Data and International Climate Policy, 2005.


 

15 November, 2010

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