Low-Energy Fridays: The UN’s Climate Ambition Summit Misses the Mark
The United Nations (UN) recently hosted a “Climate Ambition Summit” aimed at pushing the world’s largest emitters to increase their decarbonization commitments. Leaders from the world’s largest emitter (China) and second-largest emitter (United States) didn’t show up to the summit, making it a bit of a dud before it even started. But this presents a good opportunity to set the record straight on the international emissions landscape and highlight that the way global policymakers typically discuss international climate policy is divorced from the data.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) releases an International Energy Outlook (IEO) report every two years, and the last edition is from 2021; the next one should be out in October. When that report released, I compared their data on carbon dioxide emissions to the projections from the 2011 EIA IEO. The data was surprising because, contrary to a common narrative that the United States and other rich countries are the problem, the data suggests that they are doing exceptionally well.
Overall, when excluding 2020 (to avoid outlier data from the pandemic), the world did worse on carbon dioxide emissions than expected, coming in 1.7 gigatons (5 percent) above projected for 2019. However, when broken down into Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and non-OECD countries (basically developed vs. developing), the OECD nations came in under projections by 0.4 gigatons (3 percent) while developing nations came in over projections by 2.1 gigatons (10 percent). Essentially, developed nations’ emissions are falling faster than expected, and developing nations’ emissions are rising faster than expected, and the climate progress of developed ones is being outstripped by emission growth from developing nations.
The data gets even more interesting when broken down by country and with a widened window. U.S. emissions peaked in 2005, and since then the country has been responsible for 67 percent of all carbon dioxide emission reduction among OECD members. Put another way, the United States has cut its emissions since 2005 more than all other developed nations combined. Even though the United States remains a major emitter, the other three of the four largest emitters—China, India and Russia—all saw their emissions increase rather than decrease.
Digging deeper, when we start controlling for the size of the economy, U.S. carbon intensity improvement has been the best of all major emitters, with 14.1 percent lower carbon dioxide emissions per dollar of gross domestic product in 2019 compared to 2005. For context, the average for OECD nations was 8.5 percent, and the world average was 3.5 percent. The world’s third largest emitter, India, actually had worse carbon intensity in 2019 than in 2005.
Essentially, the United States is leading on emission abatement in a big way, and this has mostly been through policies that are replicable abroad. One such example is implementing competitive electricity markets that encourage the replacement of coal while simultaneously cutting energy costs. One would think that a pragmatic approach to climate ambition would be to find ways to implement these lessons learned, but that was not the focus of the UN’s summit. Rather, it opened with the idea that since developed nations have benefited from past fossil fuel use, they should pay for climate action from developing nations.
The problem with the UN’s approach is that a focus on sins of the past or who pays for policy change ignores the utility of emission abatement that is readily available today. Convincing residents of rich countries like the United States to pay for climate action abroad has always been a challenge, but the data shows that trying to manage climate ambition through a wealth transfer lens probably isn’t even the best way of abating emissions.
At the end of the day, the practical approach to cutting global emissions is about finding ways for countries that have had little to no progress on emission abatement to adopt proper competitive markets that allow them to take advantage of cheaper, cleaner energy. The impractical solution is to encourage those same countries that are making no climate progress to do nothing until rich countries pay for their energy. If the UN agrees that climate change is a serious issue, it should focus on the former instead of the latter.