Help Wanted: International Climate Change Mitigation Seeks Leader

Yesterday, representatives of 150 countries, including more than 80 heads of state, gathered at a high-level summit hosted by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to build momentum for a new international agreement on climate change. Both the level of attendance and the forward-looking statements from world leaders supported Ban’s conclusion that a “major political commitment” had been made. Unfortunately, the leadership shown by this coalition of the willing was dampened by a familiar absence of leadership from those with the most power to mitigate climate change. This must change soon if we are to avert a scope and rapidity of climate change never before witnessed in human history.

The great majority of nations represented at the UN summit are nearly powerless to dam the flood of greenhouse gas emissions that drives climate change. In fact, just four nations—the United States, China, Russia, and India—are responsible for half of the world’s emissions from fossil fuel combustion, and the top 10 account for more than two-thirds of all emissions. So while climate change requires concerted global action, the participation of a relatively small group of nations is critical to the success of any mitigation strategy.

On September 27–28, those critical climate actors will meet in Washington to discuss energy security and strategies for addressing climate change. This conference, to be hosted by the White House, provides an opportunity for the United States to lead the major emitters to speed progress toward an effective international agreement. The outcome of this meeting may very well determine whether climate change can be checked before it exceeds the world’s collective ability to adapt.

Any strategy that reduces the danger of the coming climate change must begin with immediate action by these 16 nations, and must involve enforceable commitments that reflect the scale of the threat. In order to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius and avoid possibly catastrophic climate change, world emissions must peak in the next 10 to 20 years and then begin to decline. This scenario depends on a scope and rapidity of technological change that can best be pioneered by the United States. As EU President Jose Manuel Barroso observed, “We can succeed only if we have the United States with us.”

The U.S. and China: A Climate Team

Over the past century, the United States has made the largest contribution to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. From this year forward, it appears that China will be responsible for the greatest additions to that atmospheric burden. Determining exactly which country leads in emissions is far less important than the fact that, without strong action by both countries, the world will continue its plunge toward climate catastrophe. From this point, the case for U.S. leadership can be made from a perspective of fairness, feasibility, and—not least—economic opportunity.

The United States contributed 25–30 percent of energy-related carbon emissions over the past century [1] and continues to have per-capita emissions well above the world average.[2] The voluntary emissions reduction strategy pursued by the current U.S. administration allowed the nation’s annual CO2 emissions to increase by more than 100 million metric tons during the 2000 to 2005 period.[3] Clearly, the strategy of voluntary reductions does not put the country on a path to achieving the 60–80 percent (below 1990 levels) reductions necessary by 2050 to avoid the most dangerous consequences of climate change.[4] To become a genuine partner in the international mitigation effort, the White House must follow the lead of the 17 U.S. states and hundreds of U.S. cities that have adopted greenhouse gas reduction targets.[5]

The United States has the ability to enact and enforce effective climate legislation now. Some of the key advantages held by the United States include:

Once the nation commits to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, these advantages will facilitate rapid progress toward climate stabilization.

However, U.S. leadership doesn’t obviate the need for China to turn down the low-carbon development path that U.S. investments make possible. As the United States begins this transformation, China must take action to develop the institutional ability to monitor and reduce emissions. China’s capacity to enforce a near-term emissions reduction commitment is currently limited. Yet if China’s emissions growth continues apace, it will nullify any carbon reductions achieved by other countries. It is thus essential that China strengthen the institutions that must soon exert control over emitting industries and redirect investment away from carbon-intensive coal power. With such institutions in place, China will be ready to capitalize on the low-carbon technologies that will be brought to scale by investments in research, development and deployment by the United States and others.

Figure 1: Fossil Fuel Carbon Emissions of the World’s Top Emitters

Fossil Fuel Carbon Emissions of the World's Top Emitters
Note: The rankings of some countries change when emissions associated with land-use change, particularly deforestation, are included: by this measure, Indonesia and Brazil would join the United States and China in the top tier of emitters.

The Will Meets the Way?

The meetings later this week will bring together leaders of both emission “capped” and “uncapped” industrialized and developing countries. In spite of their differences, the 16 nations attending the White House conference are bound by a combined responsibility for three quarters of world carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions resulting from fossil fuel combustion. These nations, ranked by fossil fuel emissions, are: the United States, China, Russia, India, Japan, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, South Korea, Italy, Mexico, South Africa, Indonesia, France, Brazil, and Australia.[6] (See Figure 1.) Representatives of the European Union and the United Nations will also attend the meeting.

Even among this group of major emitters, the United States remains peerless. Viewed on a per capita basis, U.S. emissions stand in stark contrast to other major emitters.[7] (See Table 1.) U.S. per capita emissions are double the European level, four times those in China, and 10 times those in India. Nor does the United States rate well in terms of carbon intensity of gross domestic product (GDP). U.S. emissions per $1,000 of GDP (measured in purchasing power parity) are significantly above those of Japan and Western Europe, and not far better than those of Africa or China. In fact the only relevant measure by which the U.S. is far surpassed is that of exhibiting the political will to find a real solution to climate change.

Moving Forward

Table 1: Carbon Emissions of Selected Countries, 2006
Country/Region 2006 Fossil Fuel Carbon Emissions* 2006 Carbon Emissions, Per Capita 2006 Carbon Emissions, Per $ GDP
thousand tons thousand tons per capita kilograms per $1,000 GDP (PPP)
United States 1,599,545 5.3 123
China 1,401,552 1.1 140
Western Europe 927,579 2.2 71
India 402,368 0.4 97
Japan 326,261 2.6 78
Africa 295,728 0.3 133
World 7,996,729 1.2 121
*Does not include emissions resulting from gas flaring, cement calcining, bunker fuels, or land use change.

In December, the United Nations will once again provide the forum for negotiation of an international agreement on climate change. One of the biggest sticking points is likely to be the divide between industrialized and developing countries. Industrialized nations are responsible for most of the emissions to date and continue to consume fossil energy at tremendous rates in per capita terms; this must be acknowledged in any future agreement. To date, widespread poverty combined with the glaring differences in per capita emissions have made China, India, and other developing countries understandably resistant to commitments to reduce their own emissions. However, rapid economic growth and energy use in major developing nations—particularly China and India—threaten to overwhelm any cuts made by the industrial world.

All nations will suffer the consequences of climate change. Addressing the threat will require that all major emitters step forward and take action according to their responsibilities and capabilities. Nowhere is there a greater concentration of responsibility and capability than in the United States—a U.S. commitment to binding emissions reduction targets is crucial to advance the world toward effective mitigation. Industrial countries have the technological and economic capacity to dramatically reduce their own emissions and to help move the world toward a new energy future; developing countries have tremendous opportunities to forge new development paths that help break from the past and, in the process, raise millions out of poverty.

James Russell is the visiting MAP Sustainable Energy Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute. Janet Sawin is a senior researcher and director of the Institute’s Energy and Climate Change team. This piece is the first installment in a three-part series of briefs on the importance of the White House climate conference September 27–28.

Tomorrow: “The Benefits of a Low-Carbon Future.”


1 Worldwatch calculation based on G. Marland, T.A. Boden, and R. J. Andres, “Global, Regional, and National Fossil Fuel CO2 Emissions,” in Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (Oak Ridge, TN: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, 2007.
2 Worldwatch calculation of energy-related CO2 emissions based on: Marland, Boden, and Andres, op. cit. note 2; BP, Statistical Review of World Energy (London: June 2007); Population Reference Bureau, “2006 World Population Data Sheet” (Washington, DC: August 2006); U.S. Census Bureau, “Population, Population change and estimated components of population change: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2006” (Washington, DC: 2007).
3 Based on greenhouse gas emissions reported as CO2 equivalents in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Inventory Of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions And Sinks: 1990–2005” April 2007, USEPA #430-R-07-002 (Washington, DC: 2007).
4 N. Stern, “Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change” (London: HM Treasury, 2006)
5 U.S. states with greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets include: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
6 Figure 1 from Marland, Boden, and Andres, op. cit. note 1.
7 Table 1 from the following: Marland, Boden, and Andres, op. cit. note 1; Population Reference Bureau, op. cit. note 3; U.S. Census Bureau, op. cit. note 3; International Monetary Fund, “World Economic Outlook” (Washington, DC: April 2007).