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Emissions proposals from the top 10 emitters: A look behind the numbers

Credit: Eric Wüstenhagen, Flickr

by Jyotsna Venkatesh

Published: November 30, 2015

As per the negotiations under the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, the Conference of Parties (COP) invited all Parties to submit Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) in the first quarter of 2015. Below is a summary of the contributions from the top ten emitters in the world today.

Table 1: INDCs of the top ten emitters of the world

CountryTotal Emissions (1990-2012 % of World)INDC typeBaseline YearRate of CO2 reduction Target YearNet Forest Area
China17GHG and non-GHG targets200560-65% per unit of GDP2030+4.3 Billion m3
United States
18GHG targets200526-28%2025N/A
European Union (28)14GHG targets199040%2030N/A
India5GHG and non-GHG targets200530-35% of emissions intensity of GDP2030N/A
Russian Federation
6GHG targets199025-30%2030N/A
Japan4GHG targets201326%2030N/A
Brazil2GHG and non-GHG targets200537%2025+12 Million ha
Indonesia2GHG and non-GHG targets2010 (BAU)326 or 29%42030N/A
Mexico52GHG targets2013 (BAU)25%20300% deforestation in 2030
Canada62GHG targets200530%2030N/A

Source: Author compilation based on data from CAIT Climate Data Explorer, World Resources Institute


1. The order of the top 10 emitters are according to their total absolute emissions in 2012, last year of available data.

2. All submissions cover 100% of GHG gases except for Indonesia and Mexico.

3. BAU stands for business as usual.

4. The listed rate of reduction reflects Indonesia’s unconditional target, however they state two different numbers in different portions
of the document.

5. Mexico’s rate of CO2 reduction reflects its unconditional target.

6. Canada’s submission is subject to change based on discussions at Paris COP21.

The ten countries listed above total to 72% of the cumulated emissions from 1990-2012. As expected, the United States, China and the EU take up the top spots, accounting for 49% of the cumulated emissions from 1990-2012. This is a significant portion of global emissions and the agreement reached by these countries must be closely followed.

A few observations can be made looking at these INDCs. First, while most of the target years are listed as 2030, the baseline comparison varies quite a bit across the countries. The INDCs are a positive development in asking parties to supply targets based on their countries’ specific needs and outlook for the future. This lends to a bottom-up approach to bring down aggregate global levels of GHG emissions. However, a consequence of this approach is the variability in how each proposal is presented.

Although there is a strong link between the amount of CO2 emissions and an increase in overall growth and GDP across all economies, this relationship is especially important to the rate of growth in developing countries.

Secondly, the rate of CO2 reduction is expressed differently in the case of China and India. Although there is a strong link between the amount of CO2 emissions and an increase in overall growth and GDP across all economies, this relationship is especially important to the rate of GDP growth in these countries. Higher growth and output has translated to poverty reduction, increased market activity and important economic status on the world stage. These results are clearly influencing the approach to reducing GHG emissions in both countries, most likely to ensure that the transition to using less fossil fuels does not hinder the development process.

For China, this would mean lowering their emissions to between 354-405 tonnes tCO2e (tonnes) per $1 million GDP in 2030 from 2005 levels of 1012 tCO2e per $1 million GDP. For India, their target is to reach between 368 tCO2e-396 tCO2e per $1 million GDP in 2030 from 2005 levels of 566 tCO2e per $1 million GDP. As of 2012, China and India have reduced their emissions by 25% and 13% per $1 million of GDP respectively. In the same time, China increased their emissions by nearly 49% more than their total absolute emissions in 2005, while India increased their emissions by 45% more than their 2005 levels. One must be careful in tracking emissions as both countries are projected to only grow more between now and 2030, which could disguise the true nature of CO2 reductions in both regions.

There is definitely progress being made by two of the largest emitters. However, is it ambitious enough?

The U.S. claims they will need to commit to reducing their emissions by 2.3-2.8% a year to reach their goal 2025, doubling their annual rate after also accounting for their previous INDC of reducing emissions by 17% from 2005 levels in 2020. From 2011 to 2012, the U.S. reduced total absolute emissions by 3.12%. The EU reports that member states have collectively reduced their emissions by 19% from 2005 levels in meeting their 2020 goals. This would effectively leave them to reduce emissions by 2% a year after 2020 to meet their 2030 goals. There is definitely progress being made by two of the largest emitters, however are they still ambitious enough?

A recent policy paper by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment concludes that the most optimistic estimate of global emissions in 2030 based on these INDC submissions is approximately halfway between a hypothetical “business as usual” scenario and the path towards reaching a 2°C limit by 2050 over pre-industrial levels. The study further suggests that countries must work hard to find guaranteed ways of reducing emissions on a large scale over the next 15 years to stay on course.

This outcome also sheds light on one more observation from the INDCs listed above. The developed economies largely focus on GHG emission targets, while the emerging economies also focus on non-GHG targets that are related to both mitigation and adaptation measures. The World Resources Institute calculates that about 12.2% of the INDCs did not contain adaptive measures, almost exclusively including the countries in the northern hemisphere. With current emissions proposals likely falling short of the rates of reduction needed to meet the 2°C limit, countries should give equal attention to building good adaptive capacity as part of their climate goals in the future.

Next Steps

  1. Canada’s future commitments.

Table 1 lists Canada at the bottom, with the lowest total absolute emissions among the top 10 emitters. However, the picture drastically changes when emissions are measured on a per capita basis, with Canada easily travelling to the top of the list. This consumption rate should be addressed within commitments made in Paris. With the current INDC submission, Canada’s annual rate of reducing CO2 between now and 2030 should be roughly 1.2% a year, assuming a steady level of progress against 2005 levels until today. Historical data reveals that since 2005, reductions were seen in 2006, 2008 and 2009 by 1.48%, 2.23% and 5.07% respectively, with an increase in emissions in all other years. This already falls short of reaching 2030 goals. Canada must use current momentum to build an ambitious plan to reach its goals, perhaps even surpassing its current proposal.

While the Paris commitments are about incremental change, countries should begin thinking about large scale economic transformations moving forward.

  1. The circular link between economic development and CO2 emissions must be addressed.

India makes its explicit in their INDC that they will not compromise on developing their country’s infrastructure and markets in addressing their climate goals. Similarly, China expects to continue emitting CO2 until 2030, after which it proposes to reach a peak and reduce emissions on an absolute level. This circular link between economic development and energy consumption has long been recognized but development models on a large scale have not really changed enough to fully embody the definition of “sustainable” development. While the Paris commitments are about incremental change, countries should begin thinking about large scale economic transformations moving forward.

  1. Be wary of target creep.

Annual targets are a great way of keeping climate change on the top of national agendas, and as the 2050 deadline looms closer, countries are mobilizing to put more resources into mitigation and adaptive measures. Too many overlapping targets could also cause fatigue over time. As echoed in the paper by Boyd, Cranston and Ward (2015), the Parties could agree on a mechanism that builds targets on what has already been achieved. Although most countries provide a short summary of what they have achieved since the previous INDC, a more detailed review would lend to a more precise and transparent process to bringing emissions down.

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