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What The Climate INDCs Really Mean: Part 2

Top 20 nations emitting carbon from fuel and cement manufacture (2013 data)

Top 20 nations emitting carbon from fuel and cement manufacture (2013 estimates)

Picking up where we left off yesterday, the nations that were actually expected to meet this week’s INDC deadline all fall into the “developed” category. I use quotation marks to indicate the fuzzy nature of that concept. A more appropriate term might be “industrialized,” since the world’s concept of what’s developed and what isn’t is undergoing a needed evaluation right now—thanks to the emergence of “sustainability.” But “developed” is certainly more understandable to most people than “Annex 1” (impossible for anyone but longtime UN geeks) or “OECD,” and less value-laden than the simple word “rich.”

Annual carbon emissions of top 10 emitting nations (2011 data). Note "other" segments ( breakdown of the top 20 world carbon emitters and their individual contributions is shown in the table above (2014 data, recently released, are very similar).

Remember, please, that (1) over 150 smaller emitters are not shown and that (2) they comprise perhaps 30% of the total, as represented by the white spaces on the 2011 bar chart here. Thus we are starting out from a bit of a “quick and dirty” perspective. Also, a fair degree of uncertainty and variance exists among national and global CO2 emission estimates. Even leap year makes a teeny tiny difference.

Oh… I should stress that the anthropogenic emissions statistics we’re looking at here include only carbon produced by using fossil fuels to make energy and cement. They do not include other emissions sources such as changing land use and agricultural pollution, thus they reflect a heavy bias toward industrialized nations. Note the striking differences between developed and developing nations below.

Influence of land-use change and forestry on national carbon emissions totals (

Yesterday, we calculated that 17% of the world’s nations had submitted INDCs by March 31. Accepting the uncertainties just mentioned, we have now accounted for about 31% of the world’s calculated greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuel use and cement manufacture when we add up the emissions of the three largest INDC contributors:

  • European Union, representing about 11% of the pollution the atmosphere receives from fossil/cement uses, was the first major contributor of an INDC.
  • United States, historically the giant of world industry (see history graphic), now generates 15% of fossil/cement CO2 emissions.
  • Russia, responsible for 5.1% of emissions, also boasts huge energy resources.

Cumulative CO2 emissions from 1850 (

Although they’re not on the top 20 list, Norway and Switzerland—both European by geography but not part of the EU, and each an important geopolitical force on its own—have spoken as well, and so have Mexico and Gabon.

If we step just a bit farther than the nations that have already formally anted up, the import of the filed INDCs becomes even more promising. Let’s take the step and add one more factor before we close the discussion for today.

Air pollution in Anyang City, Henan Province, China (

Air pollution in Anyang City, Henan Province, China (

China. Now the world’s biggest CO2 polluter and one of its most quickly developing nations, though it cannot forestall the climate threats on its own, China has the highest deal-maker potential. Although the nation has an “out” from the INDCs for now as a developing country, it helped get the ball rolling on climate last fall in a major way with the Obama-Xi joint pledges. The Chinese president committed then to peak the country’s carbon emissions by 2030, and possibly sooner, and to elevate zero-emissions, non-fossil energy sources to 20% of China’s supply mix by that date.

Arguably, if current population forecasts are correct, China both needs and has the most to gain from a worldwide accord limiting GHG emissions. The head of the world’s most populous nation has not only reconfirmed his words on climate change direction; he has exceeded expectations, as shown by some positive developments over the past six months. Among these: coal mine shutdowns and closure of all Bejing’s major coal-fired power plants, which was announced a few days ago.

Because climate mitigation and adaptation are part of everyone’s survival and the Chinese have outdone their promises so far, it might be worth informally counting China into the INDC ranks prior to completion of its actual paperwork. Doing so would add 29.3% to the fossil/cement portion and boost the representation of climate pledges over 60%. In other words, including China (based on its pledge on the world stage and extra progress in months since) would bring the UN comfortably past the halfway mark in terms of accounting for current fossil/cement emissions. Only 30-some percentage points would be needed, then, to complete the INDCs for these CO2 sources.

In anybody’s mind, 60% is not exactly success, but it’s a passing grade. It sure represents progress, considering that we have six months left until the harder deadline and many—probably most—countries have already started gathering data and assembling their individual numbers.

Despite uncertainties like emissions from smaller countries, inconsistency of anthropogenic reporting, collateral and multiplicative effects of natural emission sources, and other inconsistencies that the UNFCCC must clarify–the amount of fossil/cement pollution represented by the filed INDCs (although few) and the firmly held Chinese commitment appears in this simple formulation to be quite a bit more impressive than it looked at the seven filings or the 17% stage. More tomorrow on individual nations and the INDCs we need to see next.

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Written By

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."


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