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The top five countries by CO2 emissions from the consumption and flaring of fossil fuels are China, the USA, India, Russia, and Japan. Broadly, the high levels of CO2 emissions in these countries are linked to their economic sizes and structures, extent of urbanisation and the energy mix. All of them have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions albeit in varying degrees, but there are a number of challenges that are impeding progress.
Some countries have aimed to tackle carbon emissions by increasing the share of natural gas over coal. Governments, however, remain wary of making too many promises about reducing carbon emissions because they fear that such promises may stall their future economic growth. This is particularly relevant for countries such as India which are still developing and face a high level of poverty, but despite many challenges, there has been good progress and the ratification of the Paris Agreement by 160 countries is a step in the right direction.
The Chinese government is aiming to eliminate the use of coal altogether by exploring alterative energy sources. There has been much investment in renewable energy, which recorded a phenomenal growth of 126% between 2011 and 2016, albeit from a very small base. The government has introduced tax breaks for locally manufactured electric cars. Despite such efforts, increases in carbon emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels continue to be high, calling for even more stringent policies. China’s electricity penetration is still low comparatively. In 2016, the final consumption of electricity per capita was only 0.3 tonnes of oil equivalent compared to 1.0 in the USA. This indicates that electricity consumption will increase even more in the future and could lead to a higher coal consumption unless alternative sources are used.
The US has been able to check CO2 emissions from the consumption of fossil fuel given the growth in carbon emissions was relatively low at 0.80% between 2011 and 2016 thanks to environmental regulations as well as a growing share of shale gas, but there has not been much investment in renewable energy. Between 2011 and 2016, final consumption of solar, wind and other renewables increased from 1.4 million tonnes of oil equivalent to 2.4 million tonnes but forms a negligible part of the total energy mix. President Trump’s skepticism about environmental issues followed by leaving the Paris Agreement now casts further doubt about the country’s future plans to combat carbon emissions including investing in renewable energy.
The Indian government has committed to improving its carbon footprint through a three pronged approach, which includes reducing its reliance on coal, investing in renewable energy and creating additional carbon sink through forest and tree coverage by 2030. The results of these policies are yet to be reflected in the country’s environmental statistics. Although India’s forest land has increased by 1.3% between 2011 and 2016, the consumption of coal has increased by 21.2% during the same time. This coincided with a 49.8% increase in CO2 emissions from the flaring of coal, the highest in the group and in terms of absolute growth, the highest globally. India’s challenge with its environmental commitment is that its limited resources are thinly stretched over a wide range of development goals including fighting a high level of poverty.
Russia recorded the strongest decline in both coal consumption and carbon emissions between 2011 and 2016 in the named group, driven by both the government’s goal to improve energy efficiency through a better quality energy mix and fragile economic conditions reducing demand for coal-reliant construction activities like cement production. Despite the country’s internal environmental policies to tackle emissions, Russia is yet to ratify the Paris Agreement. It has set low targets as part of its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution in the run up to the Paris Agreement. Climate groups argue that such low targets do not require additional environmental measures and not enough for one of the leading emitters in the world.
Japan’s reliance on coal increased following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, leading to the shut down of all its nuclear power plants. Consequently, carbon emissions from the consumption of fossil fuel increased by 1.9% between 2011 and 2016. Growing reliance on coal means that Japan would not be able to reduce its emissions by 26.0% compared to the 2013 level by 2030 – the target it set for itself. The country could explore renewable energy further, which is currently negligible, and declined by 12.0% between 2011 and 2016.