The challenge facing the world's biggest polluters

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The clock is ticking in the race to agree a new treaty to cut the emissions that cause global warming. Michael McCarthy names and shames the offenders who must mend their ways

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In three weeks' time in Bonn, the international community will begin the negotiations leading up to December's United Nations climate change meeting in Copenhagen, which, it is hoped, will produce a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. If the world is to check the march of global warming before it is too late, it is increasingly clear that this meeting must lead to agreement on worldwide cuts in carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas – emissions of which from industry, transport and deforestation are responsible for causing the atmosphere to overheat.

Here we present a unique table of the world's 20 biggest CO2 emitters, with details of their economies and populations, and more importantly, what steps they each are already taking – if any – to cut back their emissions. Some points stand out. China has now overtaken the United States as the world's biggest polluter; its carbon emissions have more than doubled in a decade, and with its recent growth rate of nearly 10 per cent, could do so again, depending on the length and depth of the world recession.

India, now the fourth biggest polluter, is also rapidly increasing its emissions, and is increasing its population of 1.15 billion people far faster than any other country in the table; soon its human numbers will be on a par with China's and its emissions following suit. But neither country has set an emissions reduction target since, as developing countries, they feel they should be allowed to continue growing to relieve poverty (India is vocal on this point). Also, as the supplementary table makes clear, if their emissions are treated on a per capita basis, India is the lowest emitter by far, and China is fourth from bottom, instead of top.

However, some developing countries are taking on emissions targets – Mexico and South Africa stand out – while Brazil has set up a programme to save the Amazon.

Among the developed countries, the member states of the European Union (including Britain) are taking the lead, with firm commitments to reduce CO2 in the medium term. Other high-emitting rich nations, such as Japan, Canada and Australia, have given themselves less taxing targets or have not yet set out their plans in detail. After eight years of inaction and obstructionism under President George Bush, the US, now the second biggest polluter, is back among the climate change coalition of the willing, and President Obama has set out the targets he would like to aim at. However, he may be held back in his ambition by Congress.

If we are to name any laggards, we should point to the oil-exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are unhappy at the whole idea of cutting carbon and have done very little about it, and also to Russia (the third biggest polluter) and Ukraine, who similarly have shown little appetite for action.

If a workable deal is reached in Copenhagen it will have to involve the developed nations taking on new ambitious targets; but it will also have to mean the developing countries starting to cut back their own CO2, in return for large amounts of developed country aid. In essence, it will be a deal between the US and China, with the rest of the world following. But it is by no means certain that a deal can be put together. Look at our table and you will see just how different are the situations of the different countries in emissions, wealth and population. Bringing them all into a treaty that really means something will be a labour of Hercules – beginning in Bonn, in three weeks' time.

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