Carbon Emissions: Domestic and Global Policy Considerations

Climate change is the world’s most pressing contemporary issue due to its far-reaching impacts on the world’s social, economic, and environmental realities. Solving climate change will require global economic decarbonization, a monumental task requiring every nation to undergo massive structural changes. That being said, just under half of the global contribution to climate change comes from just three countries: China, the United States, and India. This paper compares Canada’s carbon emission policies with those of the above nations, identifying common policy areas that need improvement and the level of urgency each nation has demonstrated. The analysis reveals that none of the selected nations have implemented policies to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, with fossil fuel subsidies, fossil fuel infrastructure development, and inadequate investments in renewable energy representing the three most significant barriers to economic decarbonization.

As seen in Figure 1.0, Canada has one of the highest per-capita carbon footprints, despite contributing just 1.6% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Dion, 2019).

Several factors explain the nation’s disproportionate contribution to global emissions; the harsh climate, distance between major economic sectors, a resource-rich economy, and sustained economic and population growth. Despite these unique challenges, Canada has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. In 2016, the country’s climate framework: The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate, was unveiled (Dion, 2019).

The Pan-Canadian Framework has several major components and outlines numerous policies to meet international obligations under the Paris Climate Accord. Canada’s commitment is a GHG reduction of 30% of 1990 levels by 2030, which equates to reducing emissions to 517 megatonnes (Dion, 2019). Carbon pricing represents the most crucial aspect of this framework. Provinces can choose to develop their own carbon taxation systems, as long as they meet federal guidelines, or adopt the federal ‘backstop’ policy. The backstop policy is a carbon price of $30/tonne in 2020, although this will rise $10 per year until 2022 (Dion, 2019). Carbon pricing is an integral part of any climate change strategy, as it offers a continual, easily applied, and market-based incentive for producers to reduce emissions. Gradually increasing a carbon tax over several years helps to spur abatement technology innovation, as firms recognize the need to cut emissions to create future savings and stay competitive. 

In addition to carbon pricing, the Pan-Canadian Framework includes measures to accelerate the phasing out of coal power plants, new standards for biofuels, strict regulation of short-term climate pollutants (i.e., methane or hydrofluorocarbons), funding to improve carbon sequestration in forests and agriculture, modest investments in clean technology and urban transit, and funding for zero-emission passenger and utility vehicles (Dion, 2019). Canada’s carbon emission policies aim to do three things: internalize the social costs of fossil fuels, improve the economic feasibility of renewable energy and clean technology, and foster innovation capable of becoming an invaluable Canadian resource in the 21st century. 

Despite a slew of policies designed to increase the pace of economic decarbonization, Canada remains challenged to meet its commitments outlined in the Paris Climate Accord. By its own governments’ estimates, the Pan-Canadian Framework will fail to reduce emissions to the 2030 target level by a margin of 66 megatonnes (Dion, 2019). Simultaneous to pursuing incremental steps towards decarbonization, Canada has remained quietly supportive of its fossil fuel sector. Domestic coal production has quickly declined, but fracked natural gas, which has a carbon footprint similar to coal, has boomed in recent years (Roberts, 2019). Additionally, and despite pledging to eliminate them in 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has maintained billions in public subsidies for the oil and gas industry, directly undermining the nation’s carbon pricing scheme. Climate Action Tracker, a non-profit dedicated to the compilation and analysis of global climate change policies, ranked Canada’s Pan-Canadian Framework as “inadequate,” citing the plans implementation delays, lack of planning beyond the year 2030, and the nation’s continued fossil fuel development (“Canada,” 2020).

The United States has experienced particularly volatile GHG policies over the past decade. Eight years of leadership from Barrack Obama sought to improve the United State’s relationship with the environment and foster global cooperation on climate change; however, most Obama-era environmental regulations were quickly repealed or watered down after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Additionally, the United States left the Paris Climate Accord. Donald Trump’s administration spent its tenure (2016-2020) dismantling climate policies and rolling back clean air and water, wildlife, and chemical regulations. The heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Interior were extremely close to the fossil fuel industry; subsequently, these agencies were sabotaged from the inside and were unable to perform their duties to protect the environment.

In just four years, massive damage was done to the ecosystems that support the foundation of life in the United States. More than 50% of the nation’s wetlands had their protections removed (Popovich, Albeck-ripka, & Pierre-louis, 2020), significantly increasing their destruction rate and reducing domestic carbon sequestration. Public lands and national parks also suffered. Trump’s Interior Department limited wildlife protections to enable more oil and gas drilling opportunities (Popovich, Albeck-ripka, & Pierre-louis, 2020). Air pollution increased during Trump’s tenure due to the weakening of carbon dioxide limits from powerplants and vehicles (Popovich, Albeck-ripka, & Pierre-louis, 2020). Water pollution also increased as a result of the EPA weakening restrictions on agricultural and industrial runoff. Under Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s first appointment to head up the EPA, regional enforcement officers were restricted from collecting water pollution tests without EPA headquarter approval (Konisky & Woods, 2018). The United States has failed on every environmental policy front in the past four years. As such, renewable energy and clean technology, electric vehicles, and other sustainable innovations indicative of an evolving economy have not quite yet proliferated across the nation. Currently, less than one-fifth of American electricity generation is renewable (“U.S Renewable Energy Factsheet,” 2020). 

The past four years have proven difficult on the American and global environment, but Joseph Biden’s decisive 2020 election victory has ended Trump’s four years of antagonism towards renewable energy and common-sense environmental regulation. Climate change represented a signature issue of the Democratic platform, with Biden calling for the United States to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and become carbon neutral by 2050 by investing over two trillion dollars to stimulate the nation’s clean energy industry (Gabbatiss, 2020).

Like the United States, India’s most recent ruling party occupies the right-wing of the political spectrum. Unlike the United States, the nation’s leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has acknowledged the severity of the climate crisis and has sought to reduce his nations’ carbon footprint. India has pledged a 30-35% reduction in emissions intensity by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, and is the third-largest contributor to climate change after the United States and China (Timperley, 2019). Emissions intensity compares a nation’s GHG emissions to gross domestic product (GDP), giving an indicator of the nation’s progress towards economic decarbonization. Cattle farming, rice paddies, and coal electricity production are major contributors to India’s carbon footprint. Massive population growth has increased electricity demand, forcing the country to rely on cheap coal power. This has caused the nation’s emissions to rise threefold since the 1970s (Timperley, 2019). Despite this, the nation has taken steps to invest in renewable technology, particularly solar energy. As much as 40% of India’s electricity is projected to come from renewables by 2030 (Timperley, 2019).

India’s government understands that coal powerplants have hampered its ability to reduce GHG emissions and it has taken a proactive leadership role on the global stage to advocate for the equitable distribution of clean energy technology. The nation argues that the transfer of technology from developed to developing nations is required if decarbonization is to be achieved in mere decades (Timperley, 2019). Climate Action Tracker narrowly scored India’s climate policies as ‘compatible’ with the Paris Climate Accord, citing the nation’s commitment to private incentives and state investment for renewable energy (“India,” 2020).  

As seen in Figure 2.0, China is the single largest contributor to anthropogenic climate change, representing more than one-quarter of global emissions. 

China consumes roughly half of the world’s coal supply (“China,” 2020), devastating local environments and the nation’s public health. Despite its reputation of being an environmental ‘laggard,’ the nation has made sizeable improvements in developing clean technology. China is now the world’s largest producer of renewable energy, electric vehicles, solar panels, and battery technology (Dudley, 2019). Additionally, the nation has filed more clean industry patents than any other country in the world. China’s coal industry represents the greatest threat to the nations’ climate targets; however, some researchers believe the nation’s coal demand has peaked (Tang, Jin, McLellan, Wang, & Li, 2018). 

The Chinese government has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060 and launched a national carbon market (i.e., cap and trade system) in 2017 to facilitate this transition (“Why China is at the center of our climate strategy,” n.d.). When introduced, China’s carbon market covered 1700 mostly state-owned firms in its power sector, comprising one-third of the country’s emissions — 3.5 billion metric tonnes (“Why China is at the center of our climate strategy,” n.d.). The carbon market will gradually scale up (starting in 2021) to cover the nation’s power, petrochemical, iron and steel, aviation, and paper production industries, although no exact timeline has been published. When fully implemented, China’s carbon market will exceed world totals under all national carbon pricing systems and would raise the total percentage of emissions covered by carbon pricing to 21% (“Why China is at the center of our climate strategy,” n.d.). 

While China has made considerable investments into renewable energy in recent years, there has also been simultaneous development of additional fossil fuel infrastructure, notably coal power plants. This has stalled the nation’s progress in addressing climate change and public health concerns. Climate Action Tracker designates the country’s climate policies as ‘highly insufficient,’ the lowest rating of any of the nations discussed in this paper (“China,” 2020).  

Analyzing and contrasting Canadian, Chinese, Indian, and American greenhouse gas policies illustrates an emerging pattern: each of the nations has recognized the severity of the climate crisis and taken incremental steps towards mitigating it, but continued support for the fossil fuel sector, specifically in the form of public subsidies, has directly undermined progress made towards economic decarbonization. Additionally, the scale of investments in renewable energy and the scope of private incentives offered by these nations are inadequate to spur rapid economic transformation. Neither Canada, China, the United States, nor India has developed policy frameworks capable of avoiding the worst impacts of anthropogenic climate change. If the world is to avoid the unprecedented consequences of global warming, all nations, but especially those with high carbon footprints (whether total or per capita), need to rapidly increase their investment rate in renewable energy, carbon sequestration, and green industry.  


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Published by Brett Porter

Comms. guy with a passion for public policy and responsible corporate governance. Conservation advocate. Plant person.

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