These three charts show who is most to blame for climate change
Leaders attending the UN climate conference are still in the thicke of negotiations, working to plan a way forward to reduce emissions and address climate impacts that are already taking place.
Part of this second goal involves discussions about funding “loss ” resulting from climate change. This would be money that rich countries would pay to aid poorer and more vulnerable countries. Developing countries have long urged such funding, but the issue was finally added to the official agenda for the first time this year at COP27 in Egypt.
Central to these negotiations is a question: Who is responsible for climate change? Although the issue is complex, a few pieces data on past and current emissions can help to resolve it.
Greenhouse-gas emissions reached their highest-ever level in 2021, with global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels topping 36 billion metric tons. China is currently the largest emitter, followed closely by the US. The next largest are the combined emissions from the European Union, followed by India and Russia.
Data about current emissions does not tell the entire story on climate responsibility. “Countries are enormously inequal in terms of how they’ve caused climate damage,” says Taryn Frasen , a senior fellow at the global climate program at The World Resources Institute, a non-profit research organization.
Climate changes are caused by the total concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas that is driving climate change, remains in the atmosphere for hundreds and years.
Researchers also consider historical emissions, which is the sum of all countries’ contributions over time. The US is by far the largest historical emitter, responsible for over 20% of all emissions, and the EU is close behind. China is third in climate pollution, accounting for about half of the total US contribution.
These regions are at the center of discussions about loss or damages due to their long history with fossil fuels. Fransen states that economies that have been strong over many years are more likely to be so because they have benefited from early greenhouse-gas emissions. She says it’s obvious that the most wealthy countries in the world have had and continue to have a significant climate impact.
Total emissions can help inform decisions about who should pay what for climate damages. Global warming can be slowed by addressing climate pollution in developing countries, where emissions are increasing rapidly despite being historically low. Fransen states that “We cannot solve climate changes without China and India dramatically reducing their emission.” Some countries might need more of a time frame to reach net-zero ,, but they will eventually need to do so to meet the global climate goals.
It’s also important to consider per capita emissions, Fransen says. It is clear, for example, that India, despite being one of the top emitters in the world, still contributes far less per capita than other countries.
In a globalized world, it’s not always easy to assign blame to individual countries for climate changes. For example, international transportation is not usually included in any country’s total emissions.
This issue also arises for manufacturing hubs like China, says Robbie Andrew, a senior researcher at the Center for International Climate Research in Norway. Andrew says that countries are generally responsible for reducing their emissions within their borders. This is true even if they make products that will be used elsewhere.
Understanding where and how they have changed over time can help us to understand how to reduce emissions and address climate change. However, any one piece of data won’t be able to capture the complex and urgent reality of the task ahead. Put simply, Andrew says, “there’s no easy answer.”
Notes on data methodology:
- Emissions data is from the Global Carbon Project, which estimates carbon emissions based on energy use.
- Data from the European Union is the sum of its current 27 member states. Because the EU negotiates on an international stage together, the bloc is represented together.
- This comparison takes into account emissions from energy and some industrial activity like cement production but doesn’t include land use emissions from agriculture and forestry, which can be a significant contributor but is more difficult to estimate.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.