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Obama wants the US to lead. Is anyone interested in following?
Update: A Sept. 23 climate summit of 120 world leaders in New York prompted weekend marches around the world against what demonstrators say is government inaction on the climate crisis, followed by anti-corporate #FloodWallStreet protests on Monday.
LIMA, Peru — With floods, droughts, forest fires and extreme storms on the rise, President Barack Obama has been attempting to reassert US leadership in the fight against climate change.
Earlier this month, the White House revealed plans to drastically curb emissions from coal plants. That move alone — which does not require Congress’s approval — will slash the US carbon footprint 12 percent by 2030.
It will also help the US meet its voluntary pledge to shrink its 2005 carbon footprint 17 percent by 2020. That might sound like a lot, but many scientists argue that, like most other nations’ climate change promises, it is nowhere near enough.
So, as negotiators frantically attempt to agree on a new United Nations climate treaty, due to be inked in Paris late next year, how does the rest of the world stack up to the US when it comes to tackling the climate crisis?
GlobalPost runs down some of the biggest players and polluters:
Image of China, first shown on China Digital Times (Robert Gagnon/Flickr Commons)
Current carbon commitment: Voluntarily reduce emissions by 40-45 percent of 2005 levels per unit of GDP by 2020.
China overtook the United States as the world’s largest carbon emitter in 2011. But before we start demonizing it, remember that, thanks to its 1.3 billion-population, China’s annual emissions of 6.2 metric tons per person are actually just a third of those in the US. Some also argue that the West has outsourced its own emissions to China because the Asian giant manufactures so many goods that are consumed elsewhere; according to this calculation (page one), those exports account for one third of China’s carbon footprint. However you slice it, though, global warming won’t end without China’s cooperation. And Beijing has shown little willingness to commit to tough, binding emissions limits.
There have, however, been recent signs that China might voluntarily cut back on its heavy use of polluting coal power plants and peak its emissions by 2030. “China has been seeing the US on the move and may feel the need to match that,” says Ola Elvevold, a climate advisor at Friends of the Earth International. That has some environmentalists expressing the cautious optimism not normally associated with UN climate talks. Alex Hanafi, an international climate strategist at Environmental Defense, said: “If the US, China and European Union could reach some kind of broad agreement, and take a few poorer nations with them, that could be the breakthrough that we have been waiting for.”
Germany's Neukirchen II solar farm (Mark Mühlhaus/attenzione/Flickr Commons)
Current carbon commitment: Under the Kyoto Protocol, the EU’s 2020 emissions must be 20 percent down from 1990 levels.
In many ways, Europe is a global leader when it comes to tackling climate change. Spain is a solar energy superpower while Germany generates roughly three-quarters of its electricity from renewable sources. Under the Kyoto Protocol, still the world’s only international climate treaty, the European Union (EU) is committed to a 20 percent reduction in its 1990 carbon emissions by 2020. In fact, the EU has already slashed them by 19 percent. But instead of applauding, says Elvevold, we should be asking how Brussels negotiated such an easy target. “There are degrees of dragging your feet,” he adds. “No country [in the world] today has targets in line with what science is demanding if we are to avoid a dangerous temperature rise of two degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit].” Elvevold is even critical of his own country, Norway, which is not a member of the EU and is often viewed as a leader on social and environmental issues. “We are a major exporter of oil and have no plans to stop,” he says.
Fort McMurray, Alberta (Kris Krug/Flickr Commons)
Current carbon commitment: Voluntarily reduce emissions by 17 percent on 2005 levels by 2020.
The US’s nextdoor neighbor has a reputation as a climate baddie. Its emissions are already high, accounting for 8 percent of the global total despite Canada having less than half of one percent of the human population. And Canada’s voluntary carbon pledge, mentioned above, would actually allow its 2020 emissions to come in at three percent higher than its 1990 levels, the year usually used as a benchmark. Canada is also the only country in the world to have fully pulled out of the Kyoto protocol, in 2011, arguing that it would be too difficult to meet its emission reductions goals. Given that the US Congress never ratified Kyoto after President Bill Clinton signed it in 1997, there’s a limit to how critical Washington could be of Ottawa. Nevertheless, Obama’s promise to slash US emissions from coal — its main source of electricity — does pile the pressure on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to follow suit with Canada’s principle sources of energy, oil and gas.
Coal power station on Russian border (Peretz Partensky/Flickr Commons)
Current carbon commitment: Voluntarily reduce emissions by 15-25 percent on 1990 levels by 2020.
Russia was one nation that had no problem meeting its Kyoto protocol commitment, to keep 2008-2012 emissions at 1990 levels. That's because the demise of the former Soviet Union saw economic activity collapse, triggering emissions to drop by around one-third. But Moscow is garnering zero plaudits from green campaigners. The country is actually the world’s fourth largest emitter, and a major producer of oil and gas. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Russia may now also have to include Crimea’s greenhouse gas inventory with its own in international climate talks.
Ras Laffan industrial city, Qatar (Stefano Campolo/Flickr Commons)
Current carbon commitment: As “developing” nations, Gulf states were excused under the Kyoto Protocol from binding targets to reduce their emissions.
Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and their Gulf neighbors have abysmal climate records. That is hardly a surprise given that the region is home to most of the largest oil producers on the planet, with huge vested interests in keeping the world hooked on fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia is the world’s eighth-largest emitter, despite having a population of just 30 million, and has seen its carbon footprint double since 1990. Meanwhile, Qatar tops the World Bank’s listings of per capita emissions with 40 metric tons per person, per year, nearly three times the US amount. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait are not far behind. “The Stone Age did not come to an end because there was a shortage of stone,” says Environmental Defense’s Hanafi. “The planet needs us all to be moving to new technologies, clean forms of energy.” Given how arid the region is, with all countries there vulnerable to water shortages, it may be that the Gulf nations will eventually need to decide which is most important: crude oil or H20. But they appear to not be there yet.
Toluca metropolitan area, Mexico (Eneas De Troya/Flickr Commons)
Current carbon commitment: Voluntarily reduce emissions 30 percent below “business as normal” by 2020 with the help of financial and technical assistance from rich nations.
America’s southern neighbor appears determined to set itself up as a climate role model. The 2012 General Law on Climate Change makes national reductions, including in different sectors of the economy, compulsory. It also requires the Mexican government to halve carbon emissions by 2050. The law might be the first of its kind anywhere, but it has also attracted flak — like the accusation that there is no budget allocated this year, 2014, to the Climate Change Fund, established by the statute to fund emissions cuts.
(Alfonsina Blyde/Flickr Commons)
Current carbon commitment: As a “developing” nation, Venezuela has no binding commitment under the Kyoto Protocol.
Often flying under the media radar when it comes to international climate negotiations, the South American nation is seen by insiders as one of the obstacles to a binding worldwide treaty. That’s hardly a surprise given that Venezuela now has the world’s largest proven crude reserves. Indeed, the country’s carbon footprint is massively swollen by its sale of the planet’s cheapest gas, an environmental and economic disaster that even the late President Hugo Chavez did not dare mess with. “There are people at these negotiations who will tell you Venezuela is being difficult,” Hanafi says. Elvevold adds that Caracas is playing a “less than constructive” role.
Marshall Islands (DFAT photo library/Flickr Commons)
Current carbon commitment: Various voluntary commitments, including some island nations using only renewable energy for electricity generation by 2020.
It’s a pity that the likes of Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia have virtually zero influence on the international stage. The proverbial canaries in the coal mine of climate change, many of these tiny island nations, most just a few feet above sea level, are due to disappear in the coming decades as seas rise thanks to melting mountain glaciers and polar ice. No wonder many of them have such strong commitments to reduce their own already miniscule carbon footprints. The Cook Islands, for example, intends all its electricity generation to be from renewable sources by 2020. How threatened will the US, Europe and other major nations need to be before they finally match the Pacific Islands' policies?