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15.10.21 The big five and climate action Author: Jost Burger • Credits: Getty Images/Visual China Group • Reading time: 6 min.

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Discussions about the climate crisis are often restricted to a narrow national perspective. This is why it is worth taking a look at the five really large emitters: China, the USA, the EU, India, and Russia. We analyze their climate targets and explain how they can achieve them.

The G20 summit takes place in Rome at the end of October. This gathering of the world’s 20 largest economies will be used this year to prepare for the 26th annual World Climate Conference (COP26) that is being held in the Scottish city of Glasgow and will be attended by representatives of more than 190 countries. COP26, which was originally planned for 2020, was postponed because of the pandemic. As a result, even greater things are now being expected of it.

This year’s meeting in Glasgow is particularly important because the participants committed at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 to presenting new national climate targets every five years. This deadline has now been reached.

For this reason, we have decided to give an overview of the current climate policies of the world’s five largest emitters of carbon dioxide (ranked by emission levels). The benchmark is pure CO2 emissions because these make up the majority of the overall greenhouse gas emissions and therefore allow for a meaningful comparison. In addition, these emissions are the easiest to record. This means that the most recent data can be made available quickly, including those for the pandemic year 2020, which we have included in our evaluation.

For the comparison of the CO2 emissions of Russia, China, India, and the USA, we have used figures from the research and consultancy company Enerdata. For the EU, the figures come from EUROSTAT.

Fifth place: Russia

Russia is a traditional supplier of raw materials and is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of natural gas, oil, and coal. According to the country’s government, there are no plans for this situation to change. On the contrary, Russia aims to increase the amount of gas it extracts by one third to over 1,000 billion cubic meters per year by 2035. A proportion of this is for domestic use, as around 85 percent of Russia’s primary energy consumption comes from fossil sources. The importance of fossil fuels is also reflected in the emission figures. In 2020, the country produced 1,619 million metric tons of CO2, which corresponds to per capita emissions of 11 metric tons.

However, Russia’s economic model as an exporter of fossil fuels could start to falter, at least in its dealings with the EU, which in 2020 imported oil, oil products, and natural gas with a value of around 60 billion euros from the country. This is because the European Union is planning to introduce a carbon border tax on carbon-intensive goods, including fossil fuels.

For this reason, Russia wants to begin trading CO2 emission certificates in the coming year, with the aim of providing an incentive for the energy industry in the country to make its production processes more climate-friendly. This in turn will result in lower carbon taxes on exports to the EU. The large energy companies are also intending to reduce their carbon footprint by modernizing their power plants. For example, by 2030 the Russian energy supplier EN+ aims to lower its emissions by 30 percent compared with 2014 levels.

And what about Russia’s climate targets? In Paris in 2015, it also committed to reducing its emissions. In June of this year, the State Duma passed a law limiting greenhouse gas emissions to 70 percent of 1990 levels by 2030. However, Russia has already met this target, because in 1990 it was emitting more than three billion metric tons of CO2.

In October, the government will launch a development strategy to reduce CO2 emissions by 2050. At the moment, very little is known about the details of the strategy, including the role of renewable energy. Significant growth is planned in the nuclear sector. President Putin stated this year that nuclear power would meet 25 percent of the country’s electricity generation needs by 2045. Currently the figure is 20 percent and experts have estimated that 24 new nuclear power stations will be needed to achieve this, including replacements for some existing plants.

Fourth place: India

India is a special case. On the one hand, the country was the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2020, releasing 2,191 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. On the other hand, its per capita emissions amounted to only 1.5 metric tons. Even in 2019 (before the coronavirus pandemic), India was ranked 103 out of 181 countries with a figure of 1.9 metric tons.

The reason for the high overall level of emissions is the large population of the subcontinent, which is currently around 1.4 billion people. This figure is likely to grow. The United Nations has estimated that by 2027 India will be the most highly populated country in the world and by 2050 will have a population of more than 1.6 billion.

The rapid economic growth in large areas of the country, which is not yet highly industrialized, is also contributing to the increasing output of greenhouse gases. Following the economic crash in 2020, the economy is forecast to grow by twelve percent in 2021, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). After this, annual rates of between five and seven percent are expected. This growth is likely to be accompanied by rising CO2 emissions, because the Indian energy mix is based mainly on fossil fuels. In 2020, these were responsible for more than 80 percent of the primary energy consumption.

Nevertheless, India is one of the countries that will probably meet its climate targets under the Paris Climate Agreement. They involve reducing the CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 33 to 35 percent of 2005 levels by 2035. In 2019, India had already achieved a reduction of 21 percent.

It is obvious that India’s CO2 emissions are linked to the rapid growth in its population and its economy. But India is in a good position to create an economy that is decarbonized in many areas, if it succeeds in basing its future growth on climate-friendly technologies.

Third place: the EU

No one questions the fact that the EU is playing an important role in combating climate change, but yet it is in third place in the global CO2 emission rankings. In 2019, EU emissions amounted to 3,054 million metric tons. EUROSTAT is expecting a fall of ten percent to 2,748 million metric tons for 2020 because of the pandemic. The 2020 per capita emissions were 6.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The EU Commission and the European Parliament have drawn up their Fit for 55 package of legislation to protect the climate, which is currently under discussion. It includes proposals for achieving the EU’s new climate targets that have already been agreed. These involve a 55 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. The EU intends to be climate-neutral by 2050.

The EU’s climate policy is a characteristic mix of goals for the entire union (legislation such as the climate target that has already been adopted) and specific measures taken by individual countries. Renewable energy generation will be expanded everywhere, but many member states will also continue to rely on nuclear power in the future, in some cases in parallel with renewables.

But what does Fit for 55 actually involve? We can give three examples. Among the proposals is a ban on new vehicles that emit CO2 from 2035 onward. At the same time, the charging infrastructure and the network of hydrogen and gas fuel stations will be expanded more quickly. There are also plans to extend the existing emissions trading system to cover the building and transport sector, where CO2 costs will in the future be included in the price of fuels.

In addition, a carbon border adjustment mechanism will be introduced in some sectors. This is a kind of carbon import tax on products such as cement, steel, and electricity that will have to be paid by suppliers from countries outside the EU. The intention is to compensate for the competitive disadvantages suffered by companies inside the EU.

Fit for 55 will be adopted by the end of 2022 and then implemented as quickly as possible in the member states. The proposals will bring far-reaching changes not only for the EU economy, but also for every EU citizen. Some countries have introduced even stricter targets. For example, Sweden is banning new cars with combustion engines from as early as 2030 and Finland aims to be climate-neutral by 2035.

Second place: the USA

Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the USA withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, but when Joe Biden came to office, the country returned to the battle against climate change. In April, he presented his climate targets to the world. By 2035, the US plans to have decarbonized its electricity sector. By 2050, the aim is for the entire economy to be climate-neutral.

This is an ambitious plan considering that the USA is in second place in the global CO2 emission rankings. Because of the pandemic, these emissions fell by approximately ten percent in 2020 compared with the previous year, but still amounted to around 4,405 million metric tons, which corresponds to per capita emissions of more than 13 metric tons.

This is due primarily to the American lifestyle, but the energy mix in the USA also plays a role. The country’s primary energy needs are met mainly by gas (34 percent) and oil (35 percent). Nuclear power and coal are responsible for nine and ten percent of the energy generation respectively. Renewable energy sources make up twelve percent.

We have very few specific details about how the USA will actually achieve its climate targets. President Biden has announced that the federal government’s fleet of around 645,000 vehicles will be replaced by electric models. In addition, half a million charging stations will be built.

To assess Biden’s plans, including the decarbonization of the energy sector, it is worth taking a look at electricity generation in the country. There are several indications that gas, a fossil fuel, will continue to play a decisive role in the future. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects 1,000 gigawatts of additional electricity generation capacity to be installed in the USA by 2050. Around 60 percent of this will come from renewable sources, which currently make up 21 percent of the energy mix. However, according to the EIA, the remaining 40 percent will be produced by gas-fired power plants.

There is another area of uncertainty. Biden has announced investments of billions of dollars in the infrastructure, part of which will fund climate action. However, the corresponding legislation has yet to pass the Senate and the House of Representatives. Only when this has happened can the necessary measures be implemented. These will be drawn up by a new council of experts known as Climate 21 Project.

First place: China

During the coronavirus pandemic, something unusual happened in China, a country known for its rapid economic growth. Its economy continued to grow in 2020 by 2.3 percent. The Chinese government is expecting a recovery to six percent in 2021, while the IMF has forecast growth of eight percent. But there has also been growth in the country’s CO2 emissions, which rose in 2020 by 1.6 percent to 9,717 million metric tons. This amounts to 90 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions of Russia, the USA, the EU, and India put together. At 6.7 metric tons, the per capita emissions are higher than those in the EU.

Despite the rapid growth rates seen in recent decades, industrialization in China has by no means come to an end. This means that in the future there will continue to be significant demand for energy-intensive products, such as steel and cement. And in China the energy comes primarily from coal, which makes up around 70 percent of the primary energy consumption. There is no end in sight to the use of coal. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, China has invested more than 20 billion dollars in fossil energy generation, mainly in coal-fired power plants.

However, China’s goal is for its CO2 emissions to reach their highpoint by 2030. It then plans to become climate-neutral by 2060. To achieve this, it is investing almost the same amount of money in renewable energies as it is in fossil fuels. For example, by the end of 2020 it had installed a total of 252 gigawatts of photovoltaic capacity (in Germany the figure was 54 gigawatts) and not far from the Gobi desert is the world’s largest wind farm with installed power of ten gigawatts.

The intention is for non-fossil energy sources, including nuclear power, to make up 25 percent of the primary energy consumption by 2025. The current figure is 15 percent. In addition, the economy will become less energy- and carbon-intensive as a result of increases in efficiency in industry and a trading system for CO2 emissions that was launched in July.

There are no signs of China’s growth slowing and forecasts indicate that by 2030 it will be the world’s largest economy. This means that it will continue to play a decisive role in combating climate change.


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