Developed Countries Need to Deepen Emissions Cuts to Meet Global Climate Goals, Say Experts

Climate change protests in the streets
Mongabay India
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Developed Countries Need to Deepen Emissions Cuts to Meet Global Climate Goals, Say Experts

The richest developed countries reduced their emissions by less than 9% over the last two decades, the latest data from their national greenhouse gas inventories, published by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, shows. Experts have said this drop is “not commensurate” with the targets to limit temperature rise as prescribed in the Paris Agreement, erodes the principles of equitable climate action and limits carbon space for developing countries to grow.

At the COP28 in Dubai, countries are gathered to debate ways to accelerate climate action and limit global warming to 1.5 and 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, a goal set by the Paris Agreement in 2015. Developed party groups, in particular, have called for higher emissions reduction targets from all parties as temperatures inch closer to the Paris Agreement’s limits. “We cannot leave Dubai without more ambition on climate mitigation,” the European Union’s Commissioner for Climate Action, Wopke Hoekstra, said at the sidelines of the conference.

But the latest data with the UNFCCC shows developed countries, which are obligated to take the lead on climate action, have “acted insufficiently” by continuing to emit more than their fair share of what remains of the carbon budget, said Rahul Tongia, a senior fellow at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP), a public policy think tank.

The UNFCCC data shows that, as a whole, developed country parties, known as Annex 1 countries under the UNFCCC, reduced their emissions within the range of 17.4% to 21.1% since 1990. The richest among these, reduced their emissions by 7.4% to 8.8% over the two decades from 1990 to 2021.

A graphic on sources of green house emissions
Developed country parties, known as Annex 1 countries under the UNFCCC, reduced their emissions by 17.4% to 21.1% since 1990. The richest among these reduced their emissions by 7.4% to 8.8% over two decades / Graph by Andrés Alegría/Mongabay.

“These reductions are not at all commensurate with what is needed to fairly reach net-zero emissions by 2050,” said Tongia. “Developed countries need to accelerate their declines to zero earlier, so developing countries have the carbon space they need to develop.”

The UNFCCC’s principle of common but differentiated responsibilities recognizes that countries have a common responsibility to address climate change, but that it is not an equal responsibility. Developed countries are overwhelmingly responsible for causing current levels of global warming and have greater means to implement measures to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change compared to poorer countries. In the absence of climate finance and affordable renewable energy infrastructures and storage, developing countries, including India, say they need to rely on fossil fuels as a dependable source of energy to achieve developmental goals.

Global warming has already reached 1.07 degrees, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Crossing 1.5 degrees of warming could worsen the impacts of climate change and intensify extreme weather events across the world. High-emitting countries such as India and China will need to decarbonize fast, given limited carbon space to contain global warming, experts have said.

“The E.U. and U.S., with emissions going down, need to accelerate the declines. They have to get to zero as soon as possible. Countries like China and India have to peak emissions as soon as possible and then decline. Of course, developed countries have a responsibility to do more and faster, but developing countries also have to do what is on the edge of feasibility,” said Glen Peters, research director for the Climate Mitigation at the Norway-based Centre for International Climate Research (CICERO).

Current levels of global emissions will exhaust the remaining carbon budget for 1.5 degrees in seven years, according to the latest Global Carbon Budget report.

Emissions from Annex 1 countries

Data from the UNFCCC secretariat shows that a bulk of emissions reductions within Annex 1 countries were shouldered by the Economies in Transition (EIT) — a group of countries including the Russian Federation, the Baltic States and several Central and Eastern European States. The rest of the Annex 1 countries are the industrialised and relatively wealthier nations that were members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1992.

The “non-EIT” countries, including Japan, European Union (E.U.) countries and the United States (U.S.), among others, collectively reduced their emissions by just 7.4%. Including fluxes from the land-use, land-use changes and forestry sectors (LULUCF), causes this reduction to go up to 8.8%. “The Economies in Transition had a big drop in the early 1990s, which is really because of the collapse of the former Soviet Union,” said Peters, adding, “The non-EIT are in complete contrast. During the 1990s, their emissions grew, and since around 2005-2010, their emissions have started to fall.”

Generally, emissions from LULUCF – encompassing changes in agriculture, deforestation, and others – are difficult to track and considered less reliable than emissions data from the other sectors.

The U.S. – the world’s largest historical emitter responsible for 25% of global cumulative emissions – has reduced its emissions by just 2.3% since 1990, according to the UNFCCC report. Some countries have increased their emissions. For example, Turkey has increased its emissions by 157.1% since 1990 levels, going up to 238% if fluctuations from LULUCF are counted. Similarly, emissions from Cyprus rose by 55%, Ireland by 11.6% and Canada by 13.9% (without LULUCF).

Emissions from the E.U. have declined by 28.6% since 1990 and the United Kingdom (U.K.) by 46.7%. According to Tongia, “The catch with the U.K. is that a chunk of their emissions reductions came from a one time switch from coal to gas, which not a lot of countries have available. On top of this, the U.K. almost quadrupled the share of emissions embedded in imports, to over 40%, which don’t reflect in national accounts.”

The most substantial declines came from the EIT, which together reduced emissions by between 40% and 48% from 1990 to 2021. Estonia accounted for a 68% decline in emissions.

Most of these countries have crossed their emissions peak. “Emissions in rich countries are declining faster than ten years ago, but the declines are not happening fast enough, especially not if you want to reach net-zero by mid-century,” said Pierre Friedlingstein, Professor and Chair in Mathematical Modelling of the Climate System at the University of Exeter and lead author of the Global Carbon Budget report.

The reasons for high emissions in these countries vary from fossil fuel combustion for energy, expanding coal power plants, and a dependence on agriculture, among a host of other reasons.

“These countries should have reached negative emissions decades ago if the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is to be applied,” said Pallavi Das, Programme Lead working on low carbon economies at the  Council on Energy, Environment and Water. According to the Carbon Equity Monitor, most of Annex 1 countries are in “carbon debt” compared to their fair share of the budget.

In 2023, emissions from China are projected to increase by 4% more than 2022 levels and India by 8.2%, according to the Global Carbon Budget report. Emissions in the E.U. will decline by 7.4% and the U.S. by 3%. “China’s recovery from Covid-19 has a role to play in the levels of rising emissions we are seeing. If China peaked today, we would decline altogether,” said Friedlingstein.

People protesting on the streets during UN Climate Conference
People protesting at COP28 venue. In the absence of climate finance and affordable renewable energy infrastructure and storage, developing countries say they need to rely on fossil fuels as a dependable source of energy to achieve developmental goals / Credit: Simrin Sirur/Mongabay.

This story was produced as part of the 2023 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published by Mongabay on December 10, 2023.

Banner image: People protesting at COP28 / Credit: Simrin Sirur.

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