US leads falls in developed country greenhouse gases

Carbon pollution in rich nations falls, but data differences highlight challenge of global climate change deal

By Gerard Wynn

The United States led falls in greenhouse gas emissions across developed countries in 2012, newly published data show, reflecting the country’s shift to natural gas from coal.

The data show wide differences according to how emissions are measured, for example whether these include changes in emissions from forests, and according to the reference year for comparisons.

Such differences show the difficulty countries face to agree next year a new global climate deal which includes emissions targets.

Developed countries have to report their annual greenhouse gas emissions, under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which excused developing countries from such an obligation.

The data is the most comprehensive record of greenhouse gas emissions.

The United Nations last week published its latest annual update, for the year 2012, which showed that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell 3.4% compared with the previous year, leading falls elsewhere including countries and regions which have far more ambitious climate policies.

Greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union, for example, fell by just 1.3%.

US emissions are falling because of rapidly rising domestic shale gas production, which has improved the economics of gas-fired power generation compared with more carbon-emitting coal.

But EU emissions are far lower than those in the United States compared with 1990, the baseline year against which emissions targets were measured under the Kyoto Protocol.


In aggregate, developed country emissions in 2012 fell by 1.3%, or by some 223 million tonnes.

Analysts have pointed out that once consumption by developed countries is taken into account, including imports from emerging economies, their emissions are actually rising.

Small print

The data show how difficult it will be to agree next year the fine print of a climate deal which limits the emissions of most major countries.

For example, some countries perform better if changes from land use including tree planting is included.

Russia’s greenhouse gas emissions were more than 540 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent lower in 2012, after such land use change was taken into account (see figure below).


According to a U.N. draft document presenting an overview of matters to be discussed and negotiated, published last week, rules still had to be agreed on how to account for land use change under a new climate deal.

In addition, the latest data show that changes in emissions were wildly different according to the reference year for comparisons.

For example, U.S. emissions have continued to rise since the Kyoto base year of 1990, which is why it prefers to use its own base year of 2005 against which to establish targets and measure progress.

Again, the latest U.N. working document says that the choice of base year is yet to be agreed.

Finally, former communist countries have cut emissions far below 1990 levels, as a result of an economic transition which led to the closure of uncompetitive heavy industries.

It is notable that Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan have made some of the biggest emissions cuts in the past two decades, and will want to be rewarded for that under a new climate deal.

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