COP26: Why historical emissions matter

This past Sunday was the start of COP 26 in Glasgow, the most important climate-related conference on the planet and the biggest event the UK has hosted since the 2012 Summer Olympics.

This past Sunday was the start of COP 26 in Glasgow, the most important climate-related conference on the planet and the biggest event the UK has hosted since the 2012 Summer Olympics. It's probably an understatement to say that this conference is one of the last few chances that world leaders have to agree on a deal to limit global temperature rises to no more than 1.5 Degrees Celsius.

 

As the news coverage goes on, you'll start to see a lot of discussion on the high emissions of countries such as China, India and Russia and the low level of their ambition for reducing emissions. While this is true as ultimately the whole world is required to be at net zero by 2050 at the latest, this misses the larger picture as to the historical emissions per country. A good analogy is to think of our carbon budget as a cake. While developed countries have had a much longer time to tuck in and have their slice, newly developing countries are only recently able to have a look in to raise their economies and living standards. The problem here is that the developed countries are now going over and above their fair share and eating into other countries carbon budget, hence the unfairness of the situation when we criticise and lay the blame onto countries such China, India, South Africa etc.

Carbon brief has recently written a great article on the importance of cumulative emissions and why they should be taken into account:

The first image shows, cumulative emissions per country from 1850- 2021.

They’ve also created a great timelapse of the changing emissions of the past 170 years which can be seen in this video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jx85qK1ztAc

As we can see, countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, UK repeatedly turn up in these high rankings. Other countries on this list as a result of emissions from deforestation include Gabon, Malaysia and the Republic of Congo, as well as several South American nations. The high rankings of small developing countries here does raise an interesting point as to the difficulty of assigning responsibility for emissions from the past as many of these countries were low populated colonies that had most of their natural resources extracted by foreign settlers. As we’ve seen in past COP summits, the Global Majority world is aware of these large historical differences and will factor them into account when setting their Nationally Determined Contributions (non-binding national greenhouse gas reduction targets).

In summary, any COP climate outcome will require hours of difficult, technical negotiations to ramp down our emissions as quick as possible and as fair as possible, and, if at the end of this two weeks we can call this conference a success, a large part of this will be down to major, developed nations ensuring that financial and technological assistance are flowed down to countries who have contributed the least but with the most to lose.  

The second table shows cumulative emissions per 2021 capita from 1850-2021. (total emissions/2021 population)

 

The third table shows cumulative emissions over time, the sum of total emission for a given year/ population for a given year