You are here: The great greenhouse gas challenge

Last month, four out of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, China, India and South Africa) met in Brasilia, Brazil to discuss their unified position in preparation for the UN climate negotiations due to take place in Doha at the end of November. The countries mutually agreed on their commitment to the extension of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which legally bound countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. At the meeting, the BRICS criticised the “insufficient” level of progress from developed countries to cut their emission targets. China’s chief climate negotiator highlighted historical responsibility in particular, adding that "China, India, and other developing countries say the developed countries have been burning fossil fuels on an industrial scale for 200 years, which has caused the global warming crisis, so they should be required to make the most cuts in greenhouse gas emissions."

For all the strong rhetoric at the summit, the fact remains that developed countries are no longer the sole contributors to global pollution. In fact, three of the BRICS were amongst the top five CO2 producers in 2011. According to the annual ‘Trends in global carbon dioxide emissions’ report released in July by the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), China came in 1st place with 29% of the share, followed by the United States (16%), the European Union (11%), India (6%), the Russian Federation (5%), and Japan (4%).  Overall, global CO2 emissions increased by 3% last year, to an all-time high of 34 billion tonnes. What’s astonishing is that emissions from developed countries now account for only ⅓ of all global emissions, the other thirds being evenly distributed between China and India alone, whose emissions increased by 9% and 6% respectively in 2011.

High economic growth is coming at a steep environmental cost for these emerging powerhouses. The increase in China’s emissions for example, is directly linked to its fossil fuel consumption. As building construction and infrastructure expands rapidly, so does its coal and cement production: China is now the world’s largest coal importer. For India, the challenges of of curbing emissions arise from having to provide energy for 1.5 billion people. Although India’s per capita emissions are very low, with a population growth rising at a steady 1.3% per year, its energy needs are growing daily. Then there is the case of Brazil: farming and land use is currently responsible for 80% of Brazil’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and the country’s agricultural production is forecasted to increase by more than 40% between 2010-19. It is clear that only ambitious and targeted agricultural reforms can help them make effective greenhouse gas emission cuts.

It is clear that as the BRICS continue to grow their economies, their environmental footprint will only grow with them. And just as developed countries need to take responsibility for their industrial emissions from the last 200 years, the BRICS need to take responsibility today for the damage to the planet they are contributing to at an exponential rate. It is extremely encouraging for environmentalist to see the BRICS make public pledges and address the issues in a coordinated manner. While it is easy to single out each country’s part in greenhouse gas emission, we are reminded each day that climate change is a truly global issue. How many will be able to actively commit and reach their target goals remains to be seen.

Ekaterina Viatkina is Membership Administration & Business Development Manager at UNA-UK.