Ambitious new emission pledges and a plan to end deforestation in the coming decade are critical initiatives for the world to keep global heating below 2C, the COP26 Climate Change Summit heard this week.
These also happen to be two of the major outcomes agreed upon by leading countries like the US, China, Australia and India in the first week of the Glasgow-based summit.
It follows Australia unveiling its plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 on October 26.
So, with all this talk about greenhouse emissions – what exactly are they, and which countries are producing the most?
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What are greenhouse gas emissions?
There are five main gases that trap heat in earth’s atmosphere and contribute to the greenhouse effect.
- Carbon dioxide
- Nitrous oxide
- Fluorinated gases
- and finally water vapour, which is produced naturally.
The term carbon emissions, or greenhouse gas emissions, refers to the release of these gases into the atmosphere, which was accelerated by the industrial revolution.
What is the biggest cause of emissions?
The majority of emissions is carbon dioxide, which is released through the burning of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas.
Carbon dioxide is now reaching levels 50 per cent higher than before the Industrial Revolution, recent data from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii shows.
Burning coal provides electricity, heat, and transportation, but some countries, like Australia, rely on coal more than others.
What countries produce the most greenhouse gas emissions?
With the world’s largest population – home to more than 1.4 billion people – China is by far, the world’s biggest emitter of CO2 emissions.
Emissions from China contribute 28 per cent to global emissions.
This is followed by the United States which contributed 15 per cent of global emissions and India, which clocked in at 7 per cent.
So what happens if we don’t reduce CO2 emissions?
If countries don’t agree to cut emissions then the world will see warming “well above” 3 degrees by 2100, according to the COP26 presidency.
This could be potentially catastrophic, as the planet is already feeling the effects of a warming climate.
Already at 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the world is heading for average global temperatures of 1.5 degrees faster than scientists thought, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) “code red” report said.
If greenhouse gasses are reduced today, that threshold is on track to be crossed in the mid-2030s.
Rising temperatures, prolonged droughts, increasing sea levels due to melting ice caps, fierce storms, raging fires, drop in crop yields and insect and disease outbreaks – are all a reality of climate change.
A recent UN state-of-the-science climate report found Australia is already experiencing more heat extremes and higher sea level rises than the global average because of climate change.
Okay then, so how do we reduce emissions?
Climate leaders at the COP26 talks in Glasgow, Scotland, on Thursday intensified their efforts to put an end date on the use of coal.
At the G20 meeting in Rome over the weekend, leaders failed to specify how they would phase out coal. It will be a tough ask to convince developing countries to go further than the rich world.
The picture is fairly rosy in western Europe and even the United States, where it seems the fossil fuel is indeed on its last legs, save for some pockets of resistance.
Belgium, Austria and Sweden are among a growing number of European countries that no longer use coal to generate electricity.
In the US, which technically has no coal phaseout plan, coal has wound down dramatically in favour of natural gas, which emits about half the carbon dioxide.
A slow but steady increase in wind power is also helping put coal out of business.
Globally, proposed coal plants are rapidly being cancelled. A report by climate think tank E3G found a 76 per cent reduction in proposed coal power since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015.
But the trend is distributed unevenly.
Coal plants are still on rise throughout much of Asia, and while power generation from coal technically peaked in 2013, it has basically plateaued since then.
The current global energy crisis, triggered by a quicker-than-expected economic rebound amid the pandemic, has even given it a bump. Coal prices last month were at an all-time high.
For every Belgium, Austria and Sweden there is a China, India, and Indonesia, where coal is still king.
Consigning coal to history is a requirement to rein in rapid climate change, but it may not happen as quickly as Western climate leaders may like.
But there has been some movement.
The UK government on Thursday announce that 18 new countries – including big coal users like Poland and Vietnam – have joined more than 40 others in a commitment to stop building new coal projects and to phase out the fossil fuel by 2030 for developed nations, and 2040 for the developing world.
Despite all this progress, a true global transition from coal will only happen when China decides.
Australia’s lucrative coal business
Australia has no clear end date on coal and its government has said it plans to keep mining and exporting the fossil fuel well beyond 2030.
The country makes more money than any other nation from exporting coal from its roughly 100 mines, and it has the highest proportion of coal in its energy mix of all the developed G20 nations, at 54 per cent according to climate and energy think tank Ember.
As long as countries like China demand huge volumes of coal, Australia’s government has made clear it will keep supplying them.
Australia makes around $67 billion annually in coal exports and the industry directly employs around 50,000 Australians, government data shows.
– With CNN