Emissions from a factory in China

Stabilising greenhouse gas emissions

How likely is it that greenhouse gas emissions will be curbed?

International discussions are taking place to negotiate caps on greenhouse gas production. The bulk of the greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere have come from industrialised countries. Increasingly, though, rapidly growing middle-income countries – particularly China and India – are generating larger and larger quantities.

Regardless of which countries are the main ‘culprits’, past or future, stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations will require large-scale transformations in human societies, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Temperatures are now on track to exceed the internationally agreed global warming ceiling of 2°C above the temperature of pre-industrial times.

So far, governments have failed to take the kind of drastic action called for by climate scientists, fearing the effect of such actions on their economies, especially in the wake of the financial crash of 2008.

Given the piecemeal nature of international agreements so far, it seems highly unlikely that the UN summit of 2015 will produce the binding targets needed to keep global warming within the agreed 2°C increase.

Economic incentives

Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC, has argued that a carbon trading (or emissions trading) system, creating business incentives that encourage cuts in emissions, is essential.

The basic idea is that a limit or cap is set on overall emissions, with individual countries or companies having a certain amount of carbon they can release. They can trade credits with others. Over time, the overall cap is lowered. Although various systems like this exist, it is not yet clear how effective they are.

The EU’s carbon trading system is central to its efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The system is the world’s biggest and covers power stations, industrial plants and airlines.

The Chinese also use carbon trading as a way to cap emissions. But some see these complex trading systems as an unnecessary distraction from the urgent overall action needed to cap emissions.

Lead image:

Photo by Mohri, Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation Research University Network/Flickr CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Health and Climate Change’ in January 2009 and reviewed and updated in September 2014.

Statistics and maths, Ecology and environment
Health and Climate Change
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development