A brief history of emissions

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Industrial emissions, Langerwehe. North Rhine-Westphalia, 2008. [Olivier Wald/Flickr]

As COP 21 edges towards its conclusion and as national delegations struggle to reach a final agreement, it is time to look back.

The difference in historical responsibility for each country is one of the main obstacles on the road to a global agreement on climate. Emerging countries, which have industrialized only recently, and developing countries that are just beginning to take off, are right to refuse to undertake the same level of efforts against climate change as their developed counterparts.

This sentiment is confirmed by a new visualization of worldwide CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel burning and cement production over the past 260 years. By combining national historical emissions data from CDIAC (from 1750 to 2010) with decadal data on population density from the European project HYDE (also available over the period 1750-2010), the distribution of emissions can be estimated across time and space over the whole planet – specifically, on a grid with a 5’ resolution (5’ being 1/12th of a degree, that is 10km by 10km cells at the equator).

These maps, and their evolution over time, illustrate the contributions of each of the world’s regions since the mid-18th century – offering at the same time a striking picture of the progressive diffusion of industrial revolution over the past two centuries.

This data highlights a number of key elements to better understand the debate over differentiated historical responsibilities:

  • Until the middle of the 20th century, only Europe and the United States (along with Japan, to a smaller extent) were contributing significantly to global emissions.
  • The rest of the world has only “lit up” over the past 30 years, with China leading the pack.
  • With growth picking up speed in emerging economies, emissions have shot up over the past fifteen years.
  • Emissions appear highly concentrated geographically when weighted by population. Improved data, including in particular the location of fossil power plants and energy-intensive plants (in industries such as cement, aluminum or paper for example) would only strengthen this finding.

This brief history of CO2 emissions across the globe reminds us that Western countries hold a specific responsibility in the fight against climate change. Achieving an early industrial revolution did allow a much earlier economic takeoff, but it also implied that Western countries have emitted a disproportionate share of the total emissions budget available to limit global warming to two degrees.

While the final sprint for a global agreement remains an uphill battle at the COP 21, this differentiated historical responsibility sets the bar higher for Western countries’ efforts against climate change. Their specific responsibility must lead to an increase in transfers towards developing and emerging economies, both financial and technological, to ensure that they limit their use of fossil fuels as much as possible, while sustaining their economic development unimpaired.

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