While U.S. CO2 emissions have shown unexpected declines in recent years, they’re just one piece of a big and complex puzzle. China’s and other developing-world countries’ growing emissions swamp the reductions seen in the U.S., the European Union, and Japan.

Global climate change is, by its very nature, a global problem.

The emission reductions in recent years in the United States are important, but truly effective solutions to climate change will require global action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, while the developed world has done a reasonably good job at limiting the growth of emissions (and reducing them in recent years), this modest progress has been more than offset by the dramatic growth in emissions from China and, to a lesser extent, India and other developing economies.

The figure above shows annual emissions for major emitters, including the U.S., the European Union, Japan, and other members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It also shows emissions from the group of richer “developed” countries, Russia, India, China, and other non-OECD (e.g. “developing”) countries.

Chinese emissions have surged in recent years, increasing far faster than those of any other country in history. Only eight years ago, in 2005, Chinese emissions were lower than those of the United States; some time between 2013 and 2015 they are expected to be twice as large as U.S. emissions. Think about it: Another United States-worth of emissions added in a decade’s time, a troubling trend and little evidence of its slowing down.

The Kyoto Protocol, now largely defunct as a result of the failure of international negotiations to agree on a post-2012 successor, set emission reduction targets relative to a baseline year or 1990. The figure below shows changes in emissions by country relative to 1990. Russia stands out as something of an outlier, having reduced its emissions nearly 30 percent from 1990 levels. This decrease is largely a result of de-industrialization caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic collapse.

The European Union represents a bit more admirable of a success story, reducing carbon emission nearly 14 percent from 1990 levels as a result of aggressive policies and a vibrant carbon market. Japanese and U.S. emissions have increased modestly, about 6-7 percent since 1990.

Developing countries emissions have increased dramatically over the same period, with Chinese emissions rising 280 percent and Indian emissions increasing 230 percent, the results of rapid economic growth and industrialization. Other OECD and non-OECD country emissions have both increased about 60-75 percent since 1990.

Since 2005, U.S., Japanese, and European emissions have all decreased between 5 and 15 percent, though 2012 data for Japan and Europe is not yet available. Russian emissions have stayed relatively flat, while both Indian and Chinese emissions have increased about 60 percent. Indian emissions, despite having a percentage increase comparable to those of China since 1990 and 2005, are still a fraction of the size of Chinese emissions, the result of a much lower starting point.

Image of Earth and puzzle pieces
Next step in assembling the puzzle: Fitting in CO2 emissions of China, India.

While emission declines in the developed world over the past few years are worth celebrating, they must be seen in context of rapid emission rises in the rest of the world. Climate change is a global problem, and from the perspective of global CO2 emissions there has been little if any progress made, with emissions increasing faster than ever. To make a real dent in global carbon emissions, it will be critical to engage China and India — important pieces of the global climate change puzzle — around moving away from coal and oil towards lower carbon forms of electricity generation and transportation.

Zeke is an energy systems analyst and environmental economist with a strong interest in conservation and efficiency. He was previously the chief scientist at C3, an energy management and efficiency company,...