Countries’ contributions to climate change: effect of accounting for all greenhouse gases, recent trends, basic needs and technological progress

climatic changeMichel G. J. den Elzen, Jos G. J. Olivier, Niklas Höhne, Greet Janssens-Maenhout
September 2013

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In the context of recent discussions at the UN climate negotiations we compared several ways of calculating historical greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and assessed the effect of these different approaches on countries’ relative contributions to cumulative global emissions. Elements not covered before are: (i) including recent historical emissions (2000–2010), (ii) discounting historical emissions to account for technological progress; (iii) deducting emissions for ‘basic needs’; (iv) including projected emissions up to 2020, based on countries’ unconditional reduction proposals for 2020. Our analysis shows that countries’ contributions vary significantly based on the choices made in the calculation: e.g. the relative contribution of developed countries as a group can be as high as 80 % when excluding recent emissions, non-CO2 GHGs, and land-use change and forestry CO2; or about 48 % when including all these emissions and discounting historical emissions for technological progress. Excluding non-CO2 GHGs and land-use change and forestry CO2 significantly changes relative historical contributions for many countries, altering countries’ relative contributions by multiplicative factors ranging from 0.15 to 1.5 compared to reference values (i.e. reference contribution calculations cover the period 1850-2010 and all GHG emissions). Excluding 2000–2010 emissions decreases the contributions of most emerging economies (factor of up to 0.8). Discounting historical emissions for technological progress reduces the relative contributions of some developed countries (factor of 0.8) and increases those of some developing countries (factor of 1.2–1.5). Deducting emissions for ‘basic needs’ results in smaller contributions for countries with low per capita emissions (factor of 0.3–0.5). Finally, including projected emissions up to 2020 further increases the relative contributions of emerging economies by a factor of 1.2, or 1.5 when discounting pre-2020 emissions for technological progress.