Is the Paris Agreement targeting the right emissions?

By: Jiesper Pedersen

Global negotiations and policies for climate mitigation, i.e., reducing GHG emissions, have historically been based on projections of what each country is expected to emit in the future, the emission scenarios compiled by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).  However, it is crucial to have a critical outlook on how these scenarios are calculated and reflect historical emissions and socioeconomic trends. Additionally, they may create imbalances between regions and countries in the world. The reality of the global economic changes, and therefore we should regularly reassess the scientific foundations of climate policy to avoid injustices.

A key issue is that country emissions have been calculated based on the total emissions of a country, including, for instance, industrial production, even when most of the production is exported. It is easy to understand how this creates distortions between countries such as the United States, the EU member states, and China – ‘the world’s factory’. In practice, much of the ‘carbon emissions’ have been outsourced to developing countries for decades.

To support efficient climate mitigation policies and ensure that the Paris Agreement, in force since 2016, follows justice and equity principles. Therefore, it is crucial to investigate the economic interconnections between exporters and importers of emissions (and pollution). Consequently, I propose an alternative way to calculate country emissions for the National Determined Contributions (NDCs), the national pledges for emission reductions under the Paris Agreement: base them on consumption-based emissions rather than territorial emissions.

Emission scenarios have served as the primary basis for assessing future climate change and response strategies. Therefore, it is important to regularly reassess the relevance of emission scenarios in light of changing global circumstances by comparing them with long-term developments to determine if they are still plausible. When we do this for the most recent estimates, we find that the historical global CO2 emissions hide underlying regional trends, making it essential to examine regional emission trends such as those from the OECD and non-OECD regions. 

In truth, most scenarios have overestimated the expected rise in CO2 emissions in the OECD countries while underestimating emissions from non-OECD nations. Conversely, the emission scenarios’ projections track historical consumption emissions more closely – and did, to no small degree, overestimate non-OECD territorial emissions.

In essence, non-OECD emissions may have increased rapidly due to increasing consumption in the EU and North American regions. Such findings are crucial for policymaking and global emissions reduction. The national emissions accounted for today in national inventories, databases, and many scientific papers (territorial emissions) may not reflect the actual commitments required to reach the Paris goals. Using consumption emissions in scientific analyses and policymaking brings to the surface that OECD countries may have to take on more responsibilities than those currently assumed in their national pledges. They will need to take responsibility for the consumption of goods imported from other countries, e.g., China and India. 

The emissions inventories that support the Paris Agreement, signed under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), have not explicitly dealt with trade. The same applied to emission scenarios. However, this can be corrected when generating future emission scenarios or updating the existing Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs), which anticipate how the evolving economic and social reality will reflect on carbon emissions.

Image 1: Christian Diokno (2021), Image 2: Kamaji Ogino (2020)

The most dominant global emission exports embodied in traded goods come from China, India, and Russia to consumers in the United States, Japan, and Western Europe (Mt CO2/year)

Globally, emissions from the manufacture of traded goods and services increase, leading to rising global fossil-fuel CO2 shares from producing countries, particularly China and India. In contrast, the EU-28 and North America consume more goods than they produce. The consumption-related emissions per capita for the US and the EU-28 are 1.3- and 1.4-tons CO2/person higher, respectively, than their terrestrial production-related emissions (emissions produced inside country borders). On the contrary, China’s per capita consumption emissions are 1 ton lower than its territorial emissions, and those of India 1.4 lower.

Per capita territorial and consumption carbon emissions for EU-28 and China 1990-2018.
Image 3: Made by author based on emissions data from the Global Carbon Project and World Bank Population estimates

If scientific analyses and international policies focus on consumption-based CO2 emissions (instead of territorial emissions), we automatically give more responsibility to high-income countries, such as the EU and the United States. And maybe, more importantly, citizens will be further encouraged to take responsibility for their own consumption. The national responsibilities formulated in the Kyoto Protocol may have contributed to form biased OECD country strategies. In the Kyoto Protocol, only the world’s wealthier countries made commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By doing this, OECD countries were indirectly compensating developing countries for their losses and allowing them to continue fossil-fuel-driven economic developments

Image 4: United Nations (1997, document available here), Image 5: Ainhoa Goma/Oxfam (2010)

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted on December 11th, 1997. 192 Parties (191 States) signed the Kyoto Protocol. Because of a complex ratification process, it entered into force on February 16th, 2005. Here 55 parties (almost all OECD countries, as well as several economies in transition) made reduction commitments. USA and Canada later withdrew.

Since 2008, OECD countries have tended to stabilize their emissions, partly due to an increase in renewable energy investments, improved energy efficiency, and the climate policies implemented in EU Member-States. However, OECD countries have also been exporting their industrial productions. Furthermore, richer countries have invested primarily (60%) in fossil-fuel energy projects in low-income regions – and only 15% in renewable energy.

Image 6: Wikimedia (2015 – UN COP 21 Sessions here), Image 7: UNFCC (2015)

Since future carbon dioxide emissions may continue to diverge regionally, I emphasize the importance of exploring the relationship between global and regional emissions toward more efficient and fair climate mitigation policies. It is determinant that the UNFCCC inventories and national pledges target consumption-based rather than territorial emissions. We should also reconsider how to communicate about emission reduction and trends in international policy fora, notably at the Paris Agreement’s climate negotiations.

Image 8: JSA Associates (2020), Image 9: Tom Fisk (2020)

Jiesper Tristan is pursuing his doctorate degree in the interdisciplinary program in Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policies at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon. Since 2020 he has been a guest lecturer at the Ph.D. program, and since 2018 examiner in Anthropology at four Danish universities (e.g., University of Copenhagen). He attended the Ph.D. program in Science and Management of Climate Change at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and CMCC, Italy. Besides. Jiesper works at the research unit CCIAM-cE3c (FC-UL) in the “RNA 2100” (Portuguese Adaptation Plan) project, at the Energy and Climate Forum’s CPLP Climate Observatory, and is the owner of the anthropological consultancy ANTHS. He has an academic background in Political Sciences and Social Anthropology.

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