In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama asserted that, “Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth.” PolitiFact’s fact-check of this statement calls a technical foul on the Administration: using absolute reductions rather than percentage reductions is a debatable approach to say the least. But in fact, the United States really did cut its carbon emissions from energy by almost 500 million metric tons from 2005 to 2011 – more than any other nation.
While the United States has taken great steps to shrink our energy carbon footprint, President Obama left out a huge part of the carbon and climate equation. Energy is NOT the only source of carbon emissions. If Obama had counted carbon from forests and land when calling the winner to date of the race to reduce carbon pollution, he would have had to name a different country as the global champion: Brazil.
Forests and land are an essential part of the carbon cycle. Currently, deforestation and land-use change – mostly due to industrial agriculture – are responsible for about 10% of global climate pollution. Most of this deforestation occurs in tropical developing countries like Brazil and Indonesia. Brazil, however, has made spectacular progress over the past decade in fighting deforestation in the Amazon. In fact, through protecting its forests, Brazil cut its climate pollution about two times more than the United States did from 2005 to 2011. As for percentage cuts? The score is U.S. 6-8% down, versus Brazil 34-43% down.
This is more than just a “gotcha” issue about using a different baseline or category. It is a critical point, because reducing deforestation is the largest mitigation opportunity in the near term. Up to 1/3 of the global mitigation potential below $100 per ton between now and 2020 is from land use and cutting deforestation, and in many countries reducing deforestation is by far the largest mitigation opportunity. In Indonesia 90% of their target 2020 emission reduction goal of 1.2 billion tons per year (double the US cuts over the last 8 years) will come from reduced deforestation.
The United States needs to keep up the good work on energy as well as elsewhere in the economy, and step it up to achieve what is actually needed. But President Obama should really consider other significant opportunities for reducing global climate emissions than just energy. The lowest cost and most immediate opportunity for climate mitigation – one that doesn’t require technological breakthroughs and has massive co-benefits for biodiversity, food security, water, and indigenous peoples, livelihoods) – is protecting forests. It should play a much bigger role in U.S. climate strategy than it has to date.
Calculating and comparing emissions reductions can get a bit complicated. It’s important to compare apples to apples – with the same years, gases, gross-versus-net, categories, etc. So of course there is a lot of detail going into the analysis above.
First, we need to dig a little deeper into the U.S. emissions drop in order to make an apples-to-apples comparison with Brazil. It would be helpful to use the same numbers that the White House used to come up with its talking point. According to CEQ, the talking point is based on a calculation that US “CO2 pollution down 600 MMt since 2005 from efficiency standards, fuel economy, low-cost natural gas, & other factors.” This 600 MMt is substantially higher than PolitiFact’s estimate of 363 MMt from 2003-2011, in part because of the base year. Using the same EIA data as PolitiFact for energy-related CO2 emissions for 2005-2011 gives a reduction of about 509 MMt. Maybe the Administration has good estimates for 2013, and perhaps there was an additional drop.
The EIA is a good source for energy emissions, but in order to compare changes including land-use change we will need a different source. The EPA’s most recent greenhouse gas inventory suggests similar estimates for U.S. emissions reductions of about 500 MMt down from 2005-2011, whether looking at only CO2 from energy, all CO2 emissions, emissions of all GHG from energy, or gross emissions of all GHGs (see supplemental table). For net emissions – where “net” factors in the carbon absorbed primarily by aging U.S. forests – the decrease is about 400 MMt from either CO2 or from all GHGs. The smaller reduction is because U.S. lands are absorbing less carbon in 2011 than they did in 2005, offsetting less of our remaining emissions.
Second, we need reliable estimates of the greenhouse gas emissions of Brazil. Brazil’s national greenhouse gas inventory includes consistent estimates for 2005 and 2010 for all greenhouse gases comparable to the U.S. report, and it includes intervening years in some of the charts.
A more up-to-date source for Brazil’s emissions is the analysis and dataset compiled by SEEG (Sistema de Estimativa de Emissões de Gases de Efeito Estufa, Google translated as the Estimating System for Emissions of Greenhouse Gases). The effort is run by Tasso Azevedo, a well-known Brazilian forest and climate expert, and is a project of Observatorio do Clima, a network of civil society organizations working on climate change in Brazil. SEEG’s estimates are almost identical to the official estimates through 2008, but diverge in 2009 and 2010 and continue through 2012.
Source: Author’s plot from SEEG CO2e data. Categories are colored to be comparable to the chart on page 11 of Brazil’s official inventory (http://gvces.com.br/arquivos/177/EstimativasClima.pdf). Green is land use change including deforestation; yellow is agriculture; red industrial processes; gold other; and blue energy.
From this chart you can see that 2004 is the peak GHG emissions year for Brazil in the last decade, rather than 2005 (the peak emissions year for the United States). Brazil’s emissions decreased about 811 MMt, or 34.6%, from 2005 to 2010. From its own peak year in 2004 to 2010, the decline is over 1300 MMt – 46% down.
Where does this leave us? The below chart shows a range of estimates for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions reductions compared to a range of estimates for Brazil. The U.S. group averages about 500 MMt while the Brazil group averages about 1000 MMt. Any way you stack it, stopping deforestation in Brazil has achieved more than twice the reductions achieved by the United States. Brazil is the real climate champion of the last decade.
This post was updated on February 17, 2014 from the original version. The most recently posted data from SEEG replaced estimates used previously for Brazil from this analysis by Tasso Azevedo. The results did not change materially.
Many thanks to Doug Boucher for pointing us to Tasso Azevedo’s analysis and other good sources and to Andreas Dahl-Jorgensen for helping conceive of the analysis and gather a few numbers. Thanks to Tasso Azevedo for suggesting I use the more recent data available from SEEG.