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22 Mar 2024

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A Different View of CO2 Emissions Illustrates the True Global Challenge

There are about 950 gigatons, or close to 1 trillion tons, of human-produced CO2 in earth's atmosphere. This undissipated gas represents about 40% of all the CO2 humans have produced since 1850, and will need to be addressed for achieve “beyond net zero,” ie to remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere if and when the global economy can achieve net zero.

Net zero itself would be a combination of sequestering carbon that would otherwise reach the atmosphere to balance – to net out to zero emissions – any emissions that are still produced. Human activity currently emits about 37 billion metric annually, with about 45 million tons sequestered through carbon capture and storage (CCS) programs.

CCS thus represents a little more than 0.1% of each year's emissions – initiatives in place today and in the future thus need to focus on the remaining 99.9%, with the assumption and hope that new emissions themselves will drop from the 37-billion ton level. The top five producers today are China (producing 34% of all emissions), the United States (with 13%), India (7.2%), Russia (5.1%), and Japan (2.9%).

Reduce and Develop at the Same Time
The challenge is to reduce emissions as much as possible (while sequestering what remains) toward net zero, while maintaining a healthy global economy, and especially letting developing nations to continue developing. Once achieving net zero, the focus would move toward addressing the 950 gigatons, plus whatever else is emitted until that time.

Thus, viewing emissions through this economic lens, the United States is actually the most efficient producer among the big five by far, emitting 178 tons of CO2 for every $1 million of its GDP. Japan sits at 258, China at 709, India at 722, and Russia at 1,017.

The world average is 354, almost precisely twice the level of the United States. EU nations, as might be expected, typically perform much better than the world, and much better than the US. Scandinavia and the Baltics range from the 60s to the 80s, the UK comes in at 103, nuclear-powered France at 105, and the Netherlands at 124.

EU Numbers are Better, But Not Perfect
Yet not all of the EU is squeaky clean, despite its reputation for tougher abatement legislation and political environments: Italy sits at 148, Germany struggles along at 153, and Spain at 162. In other parts of the world, readers may be surprised to see Brazil sitting not far from the US at 207 and Nigeria at 312. Meanwhile, Australia's at 234, Indonesia at 488, and South Africa at 1,083.

This efficiency metric plays a significant role in determining the Environment scores within the IDCA Digital Readiness Index. It provides a more fair-minded description of how well each nation is really doing than simply looking overall emissions or per-capita emissions.

Two Key Issues
Yet two key issues within this metric must still be addressed. The first is that woefully underdeveloped economies, such as those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, show a low level of emissions only because there is not much total economy to generate them. Many other nations throughout Africa and Latin America have similar profiles.

The second is that once must ask why some nations have very high levels. China, for example, has become the back room for the developed world's manufacturing economy – its high emissions levels come as it produces and ships all the manufactured products that developed-nation customers buy. Canada and the Middle East also have relatively high levels of emissions as they produce much of the world's oil.

So emissions is truly a global problem, not only because we all live in the same boat, but because we are all very highly interdependent on one another to keep the oars in the water and the boat from capsizing.

The Digital Readiness Index indeed hands out low Environment scores to nations that have inefficient economies with respect to CO2 emissions. But the intention is not to blame or shame, but rather to identify where the biggest challenges reside and urge government and business leaders to put their heads together and do something.

Graphic from United Nations Dept of Social and Economic Affairs.

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