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  • Writer's pictureHannah-Polly Williams

Eyes on the Prize: The Big Players to watch out for at COP26?

In this three-part series, we delve beyond the headlines and unpick what success could look like at COP26. In this first article we identified the big players whose decisions will most effectively move the needle. Second, we will examine where each of those big players is right now, focused on their legislative agenda and recent commitments. In the final article of the series, we will look at what companies need to know about COP26 as they evolve their ESG strategies.

In his book “How bad are bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything”¹ Mike Berners-Lee outlines a framework that consumers can use to understand (and ideally reduce) their carbon emissions. This framework uses the analogy of your footprint. Your toeprints represent activities you take that have a small impact on your carbon footprint; for example using the internet, walking, and consuming locally grown, in-season vegetables. The heal and ball of your foot represents the activities that comprise the majority of your emissions, such as taking international flights and how you heat your home. Berners-Lee believes that individuals often focus too much on activities that will make only marginal reductions in their emissions. Anyone who has worked out how long they need to be vegan to offset a transatlantic flight knows this conundrum only too well. (Spoiler: 6 months²).

This analogy is also the foundation of the greenwashing debate and therefore the same logic holds true for the international community. If COP26’s unit of analysis is humanity as a whole (which it should be), world leaders should be focused on the global footprint, not the toeprints. The ESG activities of businesses are therefore critical, as they implement and react to the decisions of legislators. Businesses can also use their voice and reputation to support advocacy for specific policies during COP26 to amplify their impact.

So what is the foot, not toe, print of global emissions? Well, there are lots of different ways to analyse the data but to keep things simple (ish) we’ll explore to time dimensions; (i) what are country emissions right now, in what industries, and what is expected in the future; and (ii) what data points highlight important for ethical considerations.

What are country emissions right now, and in what industries?

In 2019³, the world emitted 36 billion tons of CO2 emissions, up from 2 billion in 1900 and 23 billion tons in 1990. Of this, China accounts for 27%, the US 15% and Europe 18% (of which EU-28 is 10%). So leaving ethics outside, for now, we can already see that 60% of global emissions can be tackled by the policy agenda and business response of just three clusters of institutions. Russia and India are also notable emitters. Without significant policy action, we are forecast to hit 43 billion tons in 2050.

This significant concentration in the geography of emissions is surpassed by the concentration of industry emissions. The energy sector accounts for a whopping 73% of global carbon emissions, driven in particular by the production of energy used in industry, road transport and energy in residential buildings. Agriculture and land use is also critical at 18%. The industry breakdown for China, EU, US largely follows this global trend.

What data points highlight important ethical considerations?

Concept art illustrating a 3d global network of people

Among many there are three data points that stand-out:

  1. Per capita considerations: The average American emits as much CO2 emissions in just 2.3 days as the average Nigerian in a year. China’s ranks just 53rd on per capita emissions, well below the European average, with less than half the per capita emissions of the US (7 vs 16 tonnes per capita). But it's the small, oil-producing nations of the Gulf who easily top the charts; Qatar leads the charges at 37 tonnes per capita.

  2. Consumption-adjustments: These per capita differences become even more significant when we consider socioeconomic inequality within national boundaries, and consumption-adjusted models which include emissions of goods and services that are imported. On average, individuals in the high-income group of their nation account for 45% of the consumption-adjusted national CO2 emissions, compared to 0.4% for the low-income group.

  3. Cumulative responsibility: The US and Europe have contributed a staggering 53% of the cumulative contribution to total global emissions. The coal-intensive industrial revolutions that generated these emissions are the foundations of the success of these economies today.

As we’ll explore in the next article in this series, the impact of this emission data and these ethical considerations on National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) is profound. For example, most less economically developed countries have submitted two NECPs, with the more ambitious climate commitments being predicated on aid commitments from rich countries.

Portrait photo of author

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Hannah-Polly Williams is an ESG Impact & Implementation Strategist, & Senior Board Adviser to ESG Oracle. Read her full bio here.



1 Contrary to popular wisdom, bananas are not bad at all for the planet, for three reasons: (i) they grow naturally all year round; (ii) they travel in their own natural packaging; and (iii) they can travel via ship, not air, freight.
2 It's complicated but in summary, 6 months (Being Vegan saves around 3.3 tonnes of CO2e per year, and a return flight Paris to New York is 1.6 tonnes)
3 Our World in Data 2019, most recent year for complete global data sets. China emits 10.2 billion tons; Europe 5.5 billion tons; and the US 5.3 billion tons. The EU-27 accounts for only 3 billion of this with the remaining 2.5 billion emits by non EU European countries.
5 Data in this section continues to be drawn from “Our World in Data”
6 For example, the consumption-based emissions of China are 14% lower than their production-based emissions; Nambia and Mozambique more than double their emissions when switching to consumption-based, and Sweden’s emissions increase by more than 70%.
7 NECPs are the frameworks for Member States to outline their climate and energy goals, policies and measures from 2021 to 2030.


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