Written by Brad Plumer, Blacki Migliozzi and Nadja Popovich
As the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, gets underway this week, many countries have vowed to do more to fight climate change. Yet those plans still fall short of what’s needed to avoid a dangerous rise in global temperatures.
Data from Climate Action Tracker reveals emissions pathways for the world’s 10 biggest polluters. They account for more than two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions.
In the run-up to the summit, the United States and the European Union made new vows to cut their emissions roughly 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. But neither has yet enacted sufficient policies to meet those pledges. European nations are debating a large new clean-energy package, while the Biden administration is still trying to push major climate legislation through Congress.
China, the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels, has said its emissions will peak sometime “before 2030” and plans to get 25% of its energy from clean sources like wind, solar or nuclear power by then. Environmentalists had urged China to set more ambitious near-term targets before Glasgow, but it is struggling to rein in its appetite for coal power and kept its goals unchanged from those announced a year ago.
India, for its part, has not formally set a date for when its emissions will peak, with officials arguing that it needs more time to develop its economy. (India’s emissions per person are roughly one-fourth those of China and one-seventh those of the United States.) The country has announced goals for increasing the use of cleaner energy sources and slowing its growth in fossil-fuel consumption but has asked for aid from wealthier countries.
Under the 2015 Paris climate deal, countries are free to set their own national goals for tackling global warming. Some, like Russia, have set targets far above where their emissions are actually expected to be in 2030 under current policies. Iran is one of a handful of nations that has not ratified the Paris agreement and has few climate policies on the books.
Canada and Japan recently set stricter emissions targets through 2030. Neither has yet put in place the sorts of energy policies that would achieve those goals, although Canada’s government is counting on a hefty carbon tax to restrain future fossil fuel use.
If countries all follow through on their current near-term pledges, the world could potentially limit warming to roughly 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.3 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels by 2100, according to Climate Action Tracker. But many scientists say that is still too risky. To hold global warming to a lower level of 1.5 degrees Celsius, nations would all need to do much more, collectively cutting fossil fuel emissions in half this decade.
But how that responsibility gets divided up is a perennial sticking point. Many lower-income countries, including India, say wealthier ones like the United States — historically the world’s biggest emitter — should slash greenhouse gases even faster than they have promised, to give the rest of the world more time to transition away from fossil fuels.
Some countries, notably Brazil and Indonesia, release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide when they burn and clear away carbon-rich rainforests and peatlands for agriculture.
Both countries recently submitted new climate promises, though Climate Action Tracker rates their current policies as “insufficient.” In Brazil, rates of tropical deforestation declined rapidly in the early 2000s but have accelerated since the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. Bolsonaro has pledged to end illegal deforestation this decade if the international community pays billions for conservation efforts, though his promises have been met with skepticism by environmentalists and Indigenous groups.
Indonesia has taken steps to crack down on the clearing of forests for palm oil plantations. But researchers have questioned how well those efforts are working.
At the Glasgow summit, diplomats are expected to discuss ways to accelerate climate action, whether by more deeply slashing greenhouse gases like methane, providing financial aid to developing countries for clean energy or strengthening programs to protect forests. While some leaders, like President Joe Biden, have said they want to keep alive the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, scientists warn that goal could soon be out of reach without immediate and rapid action.