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Factfind: Which countries produce the most CO2 emissions?

China tops the list based purely on the number of tonnes of CO2 produced. But there are other things to consider too.

ONE OF THE unexpected moments at COP26 happened earlier this week, when China and the US vowed to work together to accelerate climate action. 

The announcement from the two largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world was light on concrete targets but was a strong symbol of increased cooperation betwen the two giants on climate change. 

The US has already said it plans to be carbon neutral by 2050, while China said last month that it intends to reach net-zero emissions before 2060. 

But how do the two countries compare to the rest of the world when it comes to CO2 emissions? 

Global warming is gas. Or rather, several gases. Carbon dioxide (CO2) accounts for about three quarters of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, but there’s also methane, nitrous oxide and a few other bits and pieces.

In practice, country-by-country comparisons tend to focus on CO2, since it’s the biggest and easiest to get up-to-date figures on.

unnamed (4) Source: Our World in Data

There are different ways to analyse which countries are responsible for the most emissions, but in sheer numbers alone, China is by far the world’s biggest producer of carbon dioxide emissions, followed by the United States, European Union, India, Russia and Japan. It was also the only one of those major emitters to increase emissions during 2020.

unnamed (8) Source: Global Carbon Project

Annual CO2 emissions from China rose 1.4% last year to 10.7 billion tonnes, almost one third of the global total, according to new data from the Global Carbon Project. Its 31% share of worldwide emissions is followed by the USA with 14%, the EU (7%), India (7%), Russia (5%) and Japan (3%).

“China posted a year-on-year increase in emissions in 2020 and was pretty much the only country to do so”, says Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a think tank.

“What happened was that the government did what it has always done in response to negative economic shocks: it started a vast amount of construction projects and expanded lending to real estate development. They basically used the most carbon-intensive sectors of the economy to boost GDP numbers.”

This Chinese construction boom – which now looks like it could be heading for ghost estate territory – helped ensure that global emissions fell by only 5-6% last year, despite the pandemic.

It’s often pointed out that China produces a lot of emissions manufacturing export goods for countries like the US, which should be held responsible for the resulting CO2. Running the numbers on this “consumption” rather than “territorial” basis narrows the gap a bit, but makes less difference than you might think: China is still far ahead of the US and the rest of the world.

unnamed (9) Source: Global Carbon Project

“Since the global financial crisis, the increases in China’s emissions have really been driven by domestic demand” rather than exports, Myllyvirta says. The country also imports a lot more than it used to, balancing out ‘exported’ emissions.

What does push China down the global rankings is dividing emissions by population. The worst offenders are small oil-rich states like Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. Ireland doesn’t fare too well on this measure either, as The Good Information Project explored last week.

Of the big six emitters, the most CO2 per head comes from the USA (14.2 tonnes), followed by Russia (10.8), Japan (8.1) and only then China (7.4), roughly the same as Ireland. The EU-28 as a whole came in at 5.8, with India way down at 1.8.

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unnamed (10) Source: Global Carbon Project

Still another way of thinking about emissions, given that CO2 hangs arounds for so long, is which countries have produced the most over time rather than in any given year. The US, EU and UK, which industrialised earlier, have been responsible for almost as much CO2 to date as the rest of the world put together.

“To the extent that these countries have reaped the economic benefits of early industrialisation, they have a financial responsibility to support those countries that face an additional limit on their development”, Myllyvirta says.

But he argues that Western governments shouldn’t necessarily be put to the pin of their collar over emissions from before global warming was recognised as a problem. Emissions since then, and certainly since climate change treaties have been in place, are a different story.

“The first time that rich countries promised to cut emissions was Rio in 1992. Those promises, by and large, were not realised. US emissions only peaked around 2006, whereas they were already supposed to be reduced between 1990 and 2000”.

There’s no road to solving climate change that runs only through developed nations, though. China is both a middle income country and the world’s biggest emitter. “There’s just no practical way for global emissions to be cut as long as China keeps increasing its emissions”, Myllyvirta points out. “Everyone needs to step up”.

 CO2 isn’t the only contributor to global warming. Other greenhouse gases like methane play a major supporting role. So does deforestation, which puts the likes of Brazil and Indonesia in the frame. But for country-by-country comparisons globally, CO2  emissions from energy and cement production tend to be used the most in practice, since they’re the biggest contributor and the easiest to get reliable, up-to-date figures on.

 This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.
 

About the author:

CJ McKinney  / Legal Affairs Journalist

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