Does it matter what UK businesses do to reduce carbon emissions if China, Brazil, India and the USA don’t act too?


Businesses all over the UK have taken steps to reduce their carbon emissions and operate in more sustainable ways. The UK Government has also announced their commitment to lowering carbon emissions in the years to come, with their most recent announcement being plans for a hydrogen economy.

But will any of this matter if the countries responsible for the majority of emissions worldwide do not take significant action to reduce their own emissions? For the purpose of this article, Business Leader has taken a look at China, Brazil, India and the USA to see how much the climate relies on them tackling their respective emissions.

How much greenhouse gas goes Brazil produce?

South America’s largest economy, Brazil, was ranked the sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2018.

With around 60% of its land area being covered by forests and the country being home to 13% of the world’s forested area, it may not be all that surprising to hear that deforestation and land-use change make up a significant portion of the country’s emissions.

Rainforests absorb a huge amount of C02 in the earth’s atmosphere, but the country has long suffered with legal and illegal deforestation, despite seeing a huge decline of around 70% in emissions from the land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector in the decade after 2005.

If deforestation continues, however, it could cause further significant disruption to the balance of C02 in the atmosphere.

Brazil has pledged to achieve ‘zero illegal deforestation’ in the Amazon by 2030, but this is a backward stop from their 2008 pledge to achieve ‘zero net deforestation’ by 2015. Therefore, Brazil’s ability to implement this pledge in the coming years might be key for combating the ongoing climate crisis.

The country also accounts for 23% of the world’s biofuel production, which is second only to the US. However, three-quarters of the country’s electricity supply comes from renewable energy sources, with Brazil being the world’s second-largest hydropower producer after China.

As part of the Paris Agreement in 2015, Brazil also pledged to reduce their emissions by 37% by 2025 compared to 2005 levels, so ensuring they meet this target will be important for the climate in the years between now and then.

A key barrier to Brazil fulfilling this pledge could be the Brazilian Primeminster,  Jair Bolsanaro. Described by some as the Brazilian Donald Trump, his government recently annouced that they want nearly $4bn worth of investment in coal mining over the next years. Before taking office, Bolsonaro had also said that he wanted to take Brazil out of the Paris agreement, so the longer he remains in office, the more difficult it might be for Brazil to reduce its emissions.

What is the rank of India in greenhouse gases?

The third-ranked greenhouse gas emitters and the fastest-growing major economy in the world, India, also happens to have the world’s second-largest population.

However, like China, they consume huge quantities of coal, and they are now ranked second worldwide for coal consumption, having overtaken the US in 2015.

In 2017, coal generated 76% of India’s electricity, with renewable energy sources accounting for 15.5%, despite investment in renewable power topping fossil fuels for the first time that year. Therefore, a much bigger shift to greener electricity will be required to combat the ongoing climate crisis.

With nearly two-thirds of the Indian population relying on farming as a source of livelihood and with 15% of the global cattle population residing in the country, it may not come as a surprise that Agriculture accounts for 16% of greenhouse gas emissions.

However, to reduce emissions from the sector, the country has pushed various initiatives, including lower methane emission rice production and the installation of more than 200,000 solar water pumps. In 2015, the use of neem-coated urea was also made compulsory to lower nitrous oxide emissions.

The Paris Agreement has also been ratified by India, with the country pledging to reduce their emissions by 33-35% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. How well the country does in meeting those targets will have a significant impact on the fight against global warming and climate change.

How much does the US contribute to greenhouse gases?

In 2019, the United States was the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, although net emissions in the country did decline 13% from 2005 to 2019.

Whilst electricity production and industry are responsible for a significant proportion of emissions in the US (25% and 24% respectively), the biggest contributor of greenhouse gases is the transportation sector (29%).

This is because over 90% of the fuel used in the country is petroleum-based, although as of 2020, there were nearly 1.8m electric vehicles registered in the US, which is more than triple 2016 levels.

With Donald Trump pulling the country out of the Paris Agreement during his time in charge, there were big fears that the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter was going to continue producing emissions at an alarming rate, in which case any sustainable energy incentives taken by the UK would seem futile.

However, since being sworn in, President Biden has re-joined the Paris Agreement and pledged to reduce the country’s emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030.

Comparing the contrasting ideals of Trump and Biden brings up an important question: is America reliant on Biden and his successor to ensure America meets their pledge to lower emissions?

Is China the largest emitter of greenhouse gases?

China has had the world’s largest carbon footprint since 2004. In 2019, it was also estimated that, for the first time since national greenhouse gas emissions were measured, China’s annual emissions exceeded that of all the developed countries combined, accounting for an astonishing 27% of emissions globally.

This marks a 25% increase in emissions over the past decade, with emissions being triple their 1990 levels. If China’s emissions continue at such a rate, you could argue that it won’t matter what any country does, let alone the UK, to reduce their emissions – we’ll still be heading for a climate crisis.

So, is China taking steps to lower its emissions?

According to research from China Power, the country’s reliance on coal – 59% of the country’s energy use in 2018 came from coal – is responsible for their inflated emissions, with coal producing up to twice the amount of C02 as other fossil fuels.

President Xi has said the country will ‘phase down’ coal use from 2026 and the country has announced it plans to become carbon neutral by 2060. However, to meet this target, research from Tsinghua University in Beijing says that coal will need to be stop being used entirely for electricity production by 2050.

China is the world leader in solar power, with their total capacity in 2020 being 254,355 Megawatts, plus its forestry programs mean the country is becoming covered in vegetation faster than any other. This is significant as this reduces soil erosion and pollution, and plants absorb carbon dioxide.

It’s also important to recognise that demand for Chinese products is another reason why the country’s emissions are so high.

For example, China is the leading producer of cement globally and cement production releases 1.25 tons of C02 per ton of cement created. However, in 2017, 25% of the cement produced in China was exported. So, if the other countries are serious about tackling the climate crisis, they could stop buying so much Chinese cement.

So, does it matter what the UK does to reduce emissions?

With the UK currently accounting for 1.1% of global emissions, putting us at 17th in the world, it’s very easy to say it doesn’t matter what UK businesses do to become more sustainable if the major global emitters follow suit.

However, the more businesses and countries shift to cleaner energy, one can only hope that a global trend emerges and others feel compelled to follow suit.