Climate change poses the greatest threat to those least responsible for it–generally people that are already vulnerable to deep-rooted challenges such as poverty. Conversely, those who have contributed the most to climate change have much better capacity to protect themselves from its impacts. In a completely equal world, each country's share of the world's Carbon dioxide emissions would be equal to its share of the global population. But this is not reality.
This infographic shows how individual countries fare in this comparison
Globally, CO2 emissions have skyrocketed in the last two centuries from about 40 million tonnes in 1811 to 36.2 billion tonnes in 2016.
Did you know? Asia is home to 60 per cent of the population but emits just 49 per cent. Africa has 16 per cent of the population but emits just 4 per cent of CO2. This is reflected in per capita emissions; the average North American is more than 17 times higher than the average African.
The most absolute emissions come from China and the United States. In terms per capita emission, China ranks only 47th, at 7.5 tonnes. The US places 11th with 16.5 tonnes—the highest among countries with a sizeable population.
Which countries emit more than their 'share' of emissions?
Some of West Asia’s largest oil-producing countries, including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, are among the world’s largest CO2 emitters, with per capita emissions of 30.8, 20.7 and 16.3 tonnes, respectively. Developed countries such as the United States and South Korea also show disproportionately high levels of emission. Despite a relatively low population for its size, Canada’s CO2 emissions reached some 563 million tonnes in 2016, placing it among of the largest per capita emitters.
Did you know? India is the third-highest country in terms of absolute emission, but only 158th in terms of per capita output (1.7 tonne).
The richest countries of the world are home to half the world population, and emit 86 per cent of its CO2. We want global incomes and living standards—especially of those in the poorest half—to rise. To do so while limiting climate change, it's clear that we must shrink the emissions of high-income lifestyles. Finding the compatible pathway for levelling this inequality is one of the greatest challenges of this century.
Did you know? Four of the five highest per capita emitters are the gulf countries of Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain, largely the result of small populations producing highly GHG-intensive commodities for export
Spending our carbon budgets wisely
Climate change is not a problem of the present alone; past contributions matter too. The stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has a long life. This means that any discussion on how the carbon cake will be divided, must take into account those gases emitted in the past and still present. The researchers of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found on average, meeting all of person's physical needs—from affordable housing and having good health to drinking clean water—required per-person carbon emissions of just 1-3 tonnes a year. But when they compared this number to how much carbon countries actually emitted per person to provide protection and subsistence, they found many, many differences.
Some countries, like the United States and Australia, emitted more than 6-8 tonnes per capita to meet physical needs. In contrast, the average that low-income nations used to meet these needs was near 1 tonne per capita. So if the challenge of this century is to cut emissions while allowing people to thrive in their lives, what are the options? "Beyond technology fixes, the safest and probably quickest option is to be mindful of what we are using all of this carbon for."
✸ World Bank, CO2 emissions Data, Last updated 14 Nov 2018
✸ CO₂ and other Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Our world in data
✸ Spending our carbon budgets wisely, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2018
✸ Equity: the next frontier in climate talks, Sunita Narain, June 2015
✸ World Population Prospects 2017, UN (UNWPP), 2017
✸ The Global Carbon Project (GCP), 2018
✸ That’s how fast the carbon clock is ticking, MCC Carbon Clock