In the year 2019, we were still pumping out around 37 billion more. That’s 50 percent more than the year 2000 and almost three times as much as 50 years ago. And it’s not just CO₂, we’re also pumping outgrowing volumes of other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. Combining all of our greenhouse gases, we’re emitting 51 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents each year. And emissions keep rising. But they need to get down to zero.
In recent years, the consequences have become more serious and visible. Almost every year breaks some horrible record: We’ve had more heatwaves, the most glaciers melting, and the lowest amount of ice ever recorded at the North Pole. Of the last 22 years, 20 have been the hottest on record. The only way to limit this rapid climate change is to decrease our collective emissions quickly. But although all countries agree on this goal in principle, they do not agree who is responsible or who should bear the heaviest load. The developed countries point at their own efforts to reduce emissions and the fact that the large developing countries on the rise, especially China, are currently releasing much more CO₂. On the other hand, developing countries argue that emissions by the West are lifestyle emissions, while for developing countries, they are survival emissions. Others call rich countries hypocrites that got rich by polluting without restraint and now expect others not to industrialize and stay poor. So who is responsible for climate change and CO₂ emissions? And regardless of the past, who needs to do the most today? We’ll talk exclusively about nation-states.
Question 1 of 3: Which countries emit the most carbon dioxide today?
In 2017, humans emitted about 36 billion tons of CO₂. More than 50% came from Asia. North America and Europe followed by 18% and 17%. While Africa, South America, and Oceania together only contributed eight percent. China is by far the world’s largest emitter with 10 billion tons of CO₂ every year or 27% of global emissions. It’s followed by the USA with 15% and the European Union with around 10%. Together, this is more than half of the world’s CO₂ emissions. So it’s clear that without the willingness and action of these three industrial blocs, humanity will not be able to become carbon neutral and prevent severe climate change. Next on our list is India at seven percent, Russia at five percent, Japan at three percent, and Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Canada all just short of two percent. Together with the first three, the top 10 are responsible for 75% of global emissions. But if we only look at the current situation, we’re not getting the full picture.
Question 2 of 3: Which countries have emitted the most in total?
If we look at emissions throughout history until today, the outlook changes drastically. The US and the EU both knock China off the top spot. The US is responsible for 25% of the world’s historical emissions emitting 400 billion tons, mostly in the 20ᵗʰ century. In second place is the EU at 22%. China comes in third at just under 13 percent, around half of the USA’s contribution. India’s contribution shrinks to 3 percent along with the whole of Africa and South America. The UK is responsible for one percent of annual global emissions but takes five percent of the historical responsibility. Germany, producing two percent of emissions per year today, has contributed almost six percent, as much as the whole of Africa and South America combined. So the narrative that rapid climate change is really the responsibility of the developing world is hard to defend if facts matter to you. But this is still not the whole story, because focusing on countries mixes two things: population numbers and total emissions. If a country has more people in general, its emissions are of course higher. Things look very different if we look at individuals like you, dear viewer.
Question 3 of 3: Which countries emit the most carbon dioxide per person?
The average human is responsible for around five tons of CO₂ each year, but averages can be misleading. The countries with the largest CO₂ emissions per person are some of the world’s major oil and gas producers. In 2017, Qatar had the highest emissions at a hefty 49 tons per person, followed by Trinidad and Tobago, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Brunei, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. But those are outliers. Australians have one of the highest carbon footprints per person: 17 tons a year. That’s more than triple the global average and slightly more than the average US American and Canadian at 16 tons. The Germans do a little better at close to 10 tons, but this is still twice the global average. China may be the world’s largest emitter, but it’s also the world’s most populous country with over 1.4 billion people, 18.5% of the world population. Per person, it’s above average at seven tons. Historically, CO₂ emissions have been closely tied to a high standard of living. Wealth is one of the strongest indicators of our carbon footprint because as we move from poor to rich, we gain access to electricity, heating, air conditioning, lighting, modern cooking, cars or planes, smartphones, computers, and interact with people across the world online. The enormous rise of China’s CO₂ emissions is coupled with the greatest reduction of poverty in history. If we order CO₂ emissions by income, we see that the richest half of countries are responsible for 86% of global emissions and the bottom half for only 14%. The average German emits more than five times as much as the average Indian. In just 2.3 days, the average American emits as much as the average Nigerian in a year. And not only that, the harsh reality is that it’s the countries that contribute least to the problem that stands to lose the most from rapid climate change. The developing world will be hit the hardest. The consequences could be food insecurity, conflicts over resources, harsher and more frequent natural disasters, and large climate refugee movements.
Question 4… of 3: So who should take responsibility?
Many of today’s richest countries are in a convenient position. They have become rich over centuries of fossil fuel burning and industrial production. They have a large historical footprint, and their wealth means they still emit a lot per person. But their country’s annual emissions are now dwarfed by other countries, because the giant that is China is finally catching up, and other giants like India are on their way. Many Germans, for example, wonder how if Germany only accounts for two percent of yearly emissions, it can have a meaningful impact on reducing emissions. The answer is simple. For one, the richest countries have the resources, highly educated workforces, and technology to develop low-cost, low-carbon solutions and spread them around the world. If we don’t want poorer countries to become as fossil fuel-dependent as we are, we need low-carbon technology to be cheap and available. And we’re getting there. The cost of renewables is falling quickly and a variety of solutions are on the horizon for many different sectors. But it needs to happen much faster. If the rich countries of the West decide to seriously tackle rapid climate change, the rest of the world would follow, because it has no choice. Just like when the European Union enforced energy efficiency standards for technology, the rest of the world adopted them too, because they wanted to be able to continue trading with the block. Still, this doesn’t absolve others of their responsibility. China is the largest CO₂ emitter today, and it’s China’s responsibility to grow in a way that will make it possible to transition to a zero-carbon world in time. Others acting irresponsibly yesterday is a horrible excuse for repeating the same mistakes today. Climate change is a global problem, and no country alone can fix it. Working out who’s responsible is not as simple as it seems, and in a way, it’s a daft question, but one that has plagued international politics for decades. In the end, it’s pretty simple. Everybody needs to do the best they can, and right now we are all not doing that. But we can begin today.