Climate Change

Carbon budget: Unfair share has been the way of the world

Till 1989, the original seven emitters appropriated 77% the world's carbon space. Between 1990 and 2019, China, along with the original seven, was behind 67% of the world's emissions. The remaining world, about 66% of the people, emitted only 33%

By Avantika Goswami
Published: Thursday 04 November 2021
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Photo : Wikimedia Commons Photo : Wikimedia Commons

The Carbon budget is constructed on the premise that there is a linear relationship between rising global temperatures and the level of accumulated atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). As CO2 level rises, atmospheric temperature rises as well — thus a higher temperature threshold like 2 degrees Celsius allows us to emit a higher amount of CO2.

These are carbon budgets rather than greenhouse gases (GHG) budgets (which would include methane, nitrous oxide and other GHGs) and the large range for 1.5°C budgetary allocations (of CO2) partly reflects varying assumptions on how fast non-CO2 GHG emissions can be mitigated.

Fossil CO2 emissions accounted for less than 68 per cent of GHG emissions in 2018. Thus, while the carbon budget as a concept is useful for policy making in key sectors such as energy, total GHG emissions and the overall emissions budget is equally critical.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), published in 2014, found that the world can emit 2,250 GtCO2 between 1861 and 2100 for a 66 per cent chance of staying within 1.5°C. IPCC AR6 published in 2021 revealed a revised estimate.

Starting 2020, the world now has a total budget of 400 GtCO2 for a 66 per cent probability to stay below 1.5°C. But before we assess the remaining carbon budget, we must see which countries have used up the available budget to keep the world temperature rise to 1.5°C. Unsurprisingly, historical emissions from 1870 to 2019 reveal a deep inequity:

Source: Analysis by Down to Earth and Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, based on data from Climate Watch and Our World in DataBefore climate convention (BCC): 1870-1989

From 1870 to 1989 — three years before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was drafted and decided on an international treaty to combat human interference with the climate system — six countries (the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, Japan, Australia and Canada) and the European Union (EU) contributed 77 per cent of the world’s total CO2 emissions.

The US alone contributed 31.26 per cent, while China's figure stood at 5.11 per cent. The rest of the world, including India, did not matter.

After China (AC): 1990-2019

Between 1990 and 2019, there was a new entrant — China — which increased its share in global emissions from 5.1 per cent to 20.7 per cent in the three decades.

The big jump came after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2000 and its share of emissions rose with its economic and trade might. In 2005-19, its emissions’ share increased to 26 per cent.

China’s emissions increased but those of the rest of the already-rich world did not decrease substantially.

In fact, they only adjusted to make way for China — the country that had quickly become the cheap manufacturing centre of the world and where goods were now made for export.

By 2019, the carbon space was occupied by the original seven and China. These countries contributed some 67 per cent of the emissions between 1990 and 2019.

The remaining world, with 66 per cent of the population, was left to occupy some 33 per cent of the carbon space.

BCC+AC: 1870-2019

The carbon budget appropriation is even more stark if you take the entire period — the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1870 to current times, 2019.

From 1870 to 2019, US, EU-27, Russia, UK, Australia, Canada and Japan, with less than 15 per cent of the world’s population (in 2019), contributed 61 per cent of the total emissions. Once you add China to this, the contribution rises to 74 per cent of the total CO2 emissions by some 34 per cent of the world's population.

India, the third- or fourth-largest emitter, has taken up a mere 3.16 per cent of the pie, despite having 18 per cent of the world’s people.

Taking IPCC'S 2014 CO2 budget of 2,250 Gt (1870 onwards) to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5°C means that the world has exhausted 73 per cent of the budget by 2019.

And these countries (original 7+China) have appropriated 54 per cent of this budget. It would be an understatement to say that the historical division of the carbon pie has been extremely inequitable.

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