Debating carbon footprint: A comparison between India and the United States

Global Carbon Footprint

The world, three decades ago, would not have considered human activities having any bearing on the drastic climate change. It was a mere natural phenomenon for most countries. However, the 21st century world is not the same anymore. Countries have unanimously agreed on the facts that they cannot possibly escape its inevitable repercussions and that their regular, uncontrolled operations and activities are constantly aggravating the scenario. From rising sea levels to unpredictable monsoons and acid rains, from polluted atmosphere to ozone depletion and global warming, all are the unfortunate consequences of climate change. The biggest culprits contributing to this phenomenon remain the gaseous forms of ‘carbon’ i.e. (CO2) carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide (CO). The more industrialized the country is, the more emissions it is producing on a daily basis. This has also led to a new blame game on the ‘carbon footprint’ among countries. Three largest carbon emitting countries with high GDP levels at present are noted to be China, the United States and India. In 2015, India and the United States emitted 2,470 and 5,180 million tons of carbon respectively. China was the highest at 10,720 million tons of emission.



It is interesting to note on what sort of platform are we comparing two of world’s largest economies, one being highly developed and industrialized and the other on the path of high industrial development with agrarian traits. Both the countries have high population and presence of heavy industries emitting excess carbon fumes. Both have high air pollution index; however, the intensity varies to a great extent. Following table represents the sectoral plus fuel-wise carbon emitted by India and the United States in the year 2014.

Sectoral Indicators (MT) India U.S.A. Fuel-wise Indicators (MT) India U.S.A.
Manufacturing industries 448.0 533.4 Total fuel combustion 2019.7 5176.2
Public power + heat generation 1046.4 2125.4 Coal 1492.9 1698.7
Transport 231.0 1728.8 Oil 468.2 2035.8
Residential sector 341.9 85.5 Natural gas 51.3 1420.1
MT = Million Tonnes International marine bunkers 4.22 46.17
Source – IEA report 2016 International aviation bunkers 12.45 67.19


The Paris Climate Change conference of 2015, leading to the signing of the International treaty by countries was a step towards reducing carbon emissions in order to tackle global warming. It was first of its kind, involving mitigation implications on both developed and developing countries. Earlier, the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention for Climate change and 1997 Kyoto protocol only put this mandate on the highly industrialized-developed countries. However, the recent withdrawal of USA. from the treaty has altered the scenario. Nonetheless, the US would still have to carry on it carbon footprint mitigation as a moral responsibility and adherence to erstwhile treaties. This sudden withdrawal of the U.S. and China’s dubious commitments towards Paris agreement create a huge opportunity for India to set an example of change. However, it is a challenging path.

The new mantra of climate treaties is ‘Common but differentiated responsibilities’” for countries. Where this makes much more sense for countries to follow, India still faces the dilemma of its position in the new world order. It is being considered as a country which industrialised long ago but at the same time its rural zones are still way higher than the urban. It is also gripped by the issue of excess population concentration in cities and towns. The trade-off between environmental protection and economic growth is quite tricky for India. Its 1.2 billion population and high emission record attracts unique attention in the world arena, but the relative and absolute poverty plus low per-capita energy usage compared to other large emitting countries justifies India’s climate overriding move for eradicating poverty and low growth through industrialization and urbanization. Following graph represents the trajectory of decadal transition between the U.S. and India.

The per capita emissions are tonnes per person.


But the fact still remains that India has a huge responsibility to fulfil on its side due to its high total carbon emissions every year.

Excess carbon emissions in cities highly affect the air quality with suspension of high amount of particulate matter in the atmosphere. Each country monitors its air quality especially for urban zones according to the WHO (World Health Organization) standards. The air quality data measures the airborne fine Particulate Matter, PM 2.5 and PM 10. In simple terms, PM 2.5 refers to the fine particles which have diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometres, produced by combustion including vehicles, power plants, forest fires and some industrial processes. Whereas PM 10 involves coarse dust particles mostly resulted from crushing or grinding operations and dust stirred up by vehicles. The U.S. also plays a role in recording India’s air quality based on its methodology. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency carries out direct comparison between India and the U.S. This agency is active in India through its U.S. Mission and regularly translates the air quality data in the form of raw PM 2.5 readings into an air quality index (AQI) through a particular algorithm. The AQI has six different levels of health concerns depending upon the numerical value ranging from 0-500. You can see the range chart on the left. Asthma attacks, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory problems, premature deaths are the main consequences faced by the public when the air quality deteriorates.

A4The Indian government follows a similar parameter basis, but with slight variations in the range and publishes the National Air Quality Index (NAQI) for major Urban zones across the country. The government has launched an app “SAMEER” to provide hourly updates on the NAQI recorder across different monitoring stations in selective cities. The World Health Organization has recognized the urgent need to adopt mitigation steps in India, as the carbon concentrated atmosphere possesses a major threat leading to severe health hazards for the general public, majorly respiratory issues and deaths due to high air pollution. In 2015, an official study recorder 3280 premature deaths pertaining to the fatalities associated with ozone and particulate matter concentration. India’s major cities, New Delhi, Chandigarh, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai etc. have reported alarming rise in fuel combustion. Recent report of the Central Pollution Control Bureau suggests that particulate matter concentration is the biggest concern in Agra, Ahmedabad, Chandrapur, Delhi, Faridabad, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Muzaffarpur, Patna, Pune and Varanasi. Whereas, Carbon Monoxide dominates Bangalore, Chennai, Kanpur, Lucknow and Navi Mumbai.

In the U.S.A., counties are more grappled by the polluted air. According to the American Lung Association, nearly 22.8 million people i.e. (7.1%) in the United States live in counties with unhealthy year-round levels of particle pollution. Cities like Bakersfield in California, Houston in Texas, top the chart of AQI with alarming figure of particulate matter.

Coal is one of the most abundantly used fossil fuel for the purpose of generation of power and heat in India and America. Even though new renewable, eco-friendly resources are evolving, coal still remains majorly irreplaceable for mass production. Coal combustion also amounts for the highest carbon emissions as seen in the table above. It either needs to mitigate through modifying the existing usage of coal and other fuels or gradual shift toward newer resources operating in the entire country. In U.S., power plants are the largest stationary source of carbon emissions. The electric sector contributed 40% of all energy related carbon dioxide release in 2013. Hence, taking steps to reduce the pollution by improving the electricity generation process would be highly beneficial. The strong federal system of U.S. has been proving helpful to formulate ground-level plans with governors and policy makers playing major role.

As a global participant and an abiding party of the Climate change agreement, India will also have to articulate its stance and initiatives more precisely not just with the western countries but also giving increasing importance to its eastern partners which includes Japan, China, Australia, ASEAN, and also Russia. Inventions and start-ups would be a welcoming move. Plus, the tools to monitor the emissions need to be more up-to date, as one cannot rely on obsolete data to bring about policy changes.