Climate Change

COP26 - How China became the world's largest climate polluter

Till the early 2000s, the US, EU, UK, Russia, Australia, Canada and Japan dominated global emissions. And then China became a factory for the world and that changed everything.

Published: Friday 05 November 2021

China, the world’s most populous country now generates a major part of Earth’s pollutants. This, however, was not the case always. 

Historically — from 1870 to 1989 — these were the biggest polluters:

  • The United Kingdom
  • The United States
  • Russia
  • Japan
  • Australia
  • Canada
  • The European Union

Together, they emitted 77 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2). The US alone emitted 31.26 per cent.

At that time — three years before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was drafted — China emitted only 5.11 per cent. But between 1990 and 2019 its quadrupled to 20.7 per cent.

This jump was after Communist China joined the World Trade Organization in 2000: Its particpitation in global trade increased as did its economic might and, along with, its carbon footprint. During 2005-19, its emissions’ share increased to 26 per cent.

The already-rich world, meanwhile, did not substantially reduce the harm it causes and only adjusted to make way for China — the country that had quickly become the cheap manufacturing centre of the world and where goods were now made for export.

By 2019, the carbon space was occupied by the original seven and China. These countries contributed some 67 per cent of the emissions between 1990 and 2019.


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