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  • Mridul Mittal

Decoding Carbon Footprint

Updated: May 22, 2019

In May 1985, Nature, an environmental magazine published an article that took the world by storm! It is not often that an obscure environment magazine hogs the limelight in the European media but this one certainly did.

Joe Farman, a British Physicist along with his fellow researchers Brian Gardiner and Jon Shanklin published their meticulous studies undertaken in Antartica, which revealed that the ozone levels above Antartica had fallen by about 40% between 1975 and 1984. The study also revealed that the ozone depletion (size of US) was caused by the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the stratosphere.

This was a momentous discovery in the 80’s and is universally acknowledged as the biggest environmental & scientific discoveries of the 20th century.

The result of this discovery was the Montreal Protocol that put forth an international agreement that intended to control and phase out the production of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-damaging chemicals that are frequently used.

Ozone layer helps to filter the harmful ultraviolet rays that cause skin cancer and stunts plant growth. In other words, if our ozone layer completely disappears today, then we would cease to exist. Period.

This was the first warning sign that was given to us and since then, the environment has been giving us many. Thankfully, we are finally waking up to the realities of the harm that we have caused to this planet and are working our way to rectify it.

Carbon Footprint

The term ‘Carbon Footprint’ came into existence in 1992, when Canadian biologist Bill Reese coined ‘ecological footprint’ referring to the amount of land in acres needed to support a given human population. The term soon became popularly known as ‘Carbon Footprint’.

A Carbon Footprint is, therefore, the ‘total set of greenhouse gas emission caused by an individual, event, organisation or product.

That said, let us start with the bad news. These are the top five countries that leave a large carbon footprint as of 2015 –


China stands ahead here and one can probably argue that it’s because of their dense population. According to research summaries, China’s carbon emissions in 2012 were around 8.50 Gt CO2 that made the nation responsible for 25% of global carbon emissions! China’s overall carbon emissions since 1950 – 2012 have been 130 GT CO2, which is equal to emissions that are released by the US, and the European Union combined!

Fossil fuel combustion, cement production and usage of Gas, oil, coke, cleaned coal and raw coal are responsible for the high rate of carbon emissions here.

The resultant effect on China’s climate has been visible to observe.

Smog in Tiananmen Square

2015 was a rude wake-up call for the people of China when they woke up to find Beijing enveloped in a smog that was 40 times higher than the normal safe levels! Schools remained closed, construction came to a standstill, vehicles were strictly off the road (except for bicycles).

Clearly, it was time to cut back on their carbon emissions. In the recent Paris, Climate Change Summit China has pledged to reduce emissions in the power sector by 60% by 2020.


Though the US are the second leading nation in the carbon emissions, things are a bit optimistic in their end. From 6000 million metric tons in 2005, they have reduced their carbon emissions 12% below the 2005 levels thanks to the policy changes that they brought about in their electric power sector. Though the US has never entered into any binding treaty they have on their own initiative cut down on carbon pollution than any other nation in the world. Today, they are in a race to reduce 17% of carbon emissions levels by the year 2020.

They can’t help but do it because the climate change has affected them in a devastating manner than anywhere else. 2015 recorded the warmest temperature in the US thanks to human-induced climate change and global warming and El Nino weather events.


The bulk of India’s carbon emissions were due to electricity generation. Carbon emissions I India rose from 8.2% in 2004 in line with its economic growth. According to a recent report, India’s energy emissions have been largely due to the demand for coal as power consumption increased in line with the rapid 7.4% growth in its GDP.

This is a conundrum that India needs to ponder upon. India is undoubtedly the world’s fastest growing economy and the consequences of that was that it became the fourth largest carbon emitter.

To be fair, India has been consciously reducing its carbon intensity by 1.4% per year right from 2000 to 2014 and its rate of reduction in carbon intensity is slightly above than the global average, which is at 1.3%. A decarbonisation of 3% is required by India and sadly we have failed to achieve the target successively for seven years now.

What is required here is to delink economic ambitions and environmental targets and hence a renewed focus on sustainable energy is called for.


Russia’s carbon emissions have been sporadic especially since the collapse of communism. In 2013, Russia took on a domestic greenhouse gas target to reduce emissions by 25% from 1990 by 2020. Today Russia’s carbon emissions are reduced to 35% of what they were in 1990 and to meet their goal of decarbonisation they are boosting energy efficiency by 40% and expanding into sustainable energy by 4.5%.


The Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 was a rude wake-up call for Japan that alerted them against their reliance on nuclear power to generate electricity. After an earthquake that lasted for 3 minutes and a devastating tsunami that destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant that led to nuclear fallout and the abandonment of the entire city. Consequently, the carbon emissions rose to 1.41 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in March 2014 following the indefinite closure of the power plants.

Despite the sharp increase in their carbon emission, in last year’s Climate Change Paris summit they have agreed to slash down their greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2030.

Environmental Policies

A lone man with a windmill and a solar panel is not going to make a difference to the collective damage that millions of individuals are wrecking upon this planet. The only way we can counter this is through large-scale reforms in environmental policies.

Uruguay is a good place to begin. A small country that was importing oil and gas from Argentina today draws 94% of its energy from renewable resources!

How did they achieve it?

They started small. Their 2008 National Energy Policy set a target of 15% electricity from wind power, biomass residues and mini hydro projects and they surpassed it amply! By the end of 2013, 83% of their generated electricity was from renewable resources!

Let me quote the example of Sweden here. Here is what they did to reduce the carbon emissions – they taxed it.

In 1991, Sweden introduced the Carbon tax. Currently, Swedes pay a tax of $150/T CO2 if they use fuels to generate electricity. Industrial consumers have to pay 50% of the tax while non-industrial consumers had to pay a separate tax on electricity. This predictably led the industries to massively expand into using biomass for heating and explore other renewable resources as an alternative energy means. The society as a whole steered towards conservation of energy and climate-friendly solutions after the introduction of this tax.

Countries such as Ireland, Australia, Chile, Finland, Great Britain and New Zealand have introduced Carbon Tax with resounding success. The prospect of paying millions of dollars as Carbon Tax has forced many industries to look for renewable options.

While Governments make long-term policies there are some countries that go ahead and amend their constitution to make it mandatory to preserve their environment. That’s exactly what Bhutan did.

In 2008, Bhutan’s national constitution brought in strictures that held every Bhutanese responsible for protecting, conserving, improving and safeguarding their pristine environment. More than 50% of Bhutan’s land area is under the protection of national cover they have annual afforestation programs that continue to add on to the biodiversity of this country.

The way forward

When governments implement policies that are environmental friendly then it is but natural for the planet to recover its equilibrium.

With the world moving towards energy conversion and sustainable energy, albeit slowly, it is quite heartening to see that their efforts are bearing fruits.

This year, scientists from US and UK who have been studying the Ozone layer for decades now have confirmed that the hole has begun to shrink. Though it might take many decades (2050 or 2060) for the hole to recover completely, it is indeed heartening to hear that the process has at least begun.

Development and environment have not walked hand in hand in the past centuries. Countries that had development as their agenda went ahead with their plans only to risk more carbon emissions. Only those countries that have implemented long-term environmental friendly plans have effectively moved ahead in the world and are respected as a responsible nation.

What do you think?