There are still a few people in the world who dispute the existence of climate change, and even more who doubt that it is down to human activity. The vast majority of nations, however, accept that CO2 emissions are a problem and have voiced concern.
But, as always in human endeavor, talk is cheap.
Actually doing something to control greenhouse gas emissions puts countries at a huge economic disadvantage. As long as coal and oil are the cheapest energy sources, unilaterally attempting to reduce their use could have a disastrous effect on a country's competitiveness. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has released a report that estimates new Environmental Protection Agency regulations designed to cut U.S. emissions will cost $50 billion per year.
Yet despite the cost, the world's biggest polluters are beginning to act. Oilprice.com offers a free widget that shows CO2 emissions by country so far in 2014. Using that data the top five global polluters are, in order of highest first: China, the U.S., India, Russia, and Japan. Each government is doing something to control pollution, with mixed results.
China: It is no surprise that China leads the pack in emissions, accounting for over 25 percent of the total CO2 added to the atmosphere so far this year. Given the pictures we've all seen of Chinese cities shrouded in smog, it is also no surprise that Beijing is trying to do something about it. As I outlined here, China is determined to reduce the cost of solar power so as to make it a viable alternative to coal, and has invested vast amounts in other alternative energy technologies. The fact that it has taken these steps demonstrates one of the advantages of a command economy. The fact that it seems to be failing, however, demonstrates one of the disadvantages; the economy, and therefore energy usage, is growing faster than any 10-year plan can account for.
US: The EPA recently announced the government's first real attempt to limit carbon emissions from coal-powered plants. They have mandated that those emissions be cut 30 percent from 2005 levels by the end of 2030. It is an ambitious target and the rules are controversial. Whether or not they will be effective remains to be seen.
India: It is tempting to be flippant here and, in answer to the question "What is India doing to control emissions?" say "Nothing." Until now, India -- whose goal of alleviating chronic poverty hinges on being globally competitive – has not made emissions control a priority. This Worldwatch report, however, suggests that may have changed. Just two weeks ago, India agreed to quantify its efforts to mitigate climate change. It is of course too early to know if those efforts will be taken seriously, let alone if they will actually achieve anything.
Russia: It may come as a surprise to learn that Russia's carbon emissions have actually fallen since the early 1990s, despite the economic improvement and modernization that followed the fall of communism. The most recent Russian Energy Strategy document sets policy until 2020 and prioritizes efficiency and sustainable energy. It is somewhat ironic, but the fact that so little was done to reduce emissions in the Soviet era may actually make it easier to do now. The old power plants are so old and inefficient that upgrading them may actually represent a saving rather than a cost.
Japan: Despite being the host of the climate conference that gave birth to the Kyoto Protocol, Japan has still seen a continued rise in CO2 emissions. They have historically been huge consumers of fossil fuels and, until the 1990s, the smog clouds that we now associate with China were a real problem there. They have been successful in reducing that problem by cutting particle emissions, but CO2 emissions keep growing. A switch to nuclear power was a large part of the policy to control pollution, but the 2011 Fukushima tragedy has halted progress. Following that, the target for emissions reduction was cut later that year.
There is, it seems, a growing consensus among the world's largest polluters that the time for action rather than talk has come. As I sit and watch the global total of CO2 added to the atmosphere tick up every second on the Oilprice.com widget, I find that thought at least somewhat comforting. Hopefully, you do too.