Global CO2 emissions and the 20 most polluting countries in the world

04 July 2017 5 min. read

Recent data suggests that global CO2 emissions could be levelling out – but with America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, it could be too little too late. Disproportionate polluters including the UK are meanwhile emitting more per year than nations with smaller populations.

Since 1850, industrialisation has boosted global emissions of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to high altitudes. According to the International Climate Change Panel, fossil fuels account for two thirds of the increase in CO2 attributable to humans.

What do our most recent trends in emissions and concentrations look like? Are we making any progress in reduction? The latest statistics gathered by Our World In Data suggests that over the last few years, global annual emissions of CO2 have shown signs of stabilising.

While global emissions levels have increased from what now seems a tiny 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year in 1900 to well over 36 billion tonnes today, the staggering climb seems to have slowed, with 2014 and 2015 seeing 36.18 million and 36.19 million tonnes emitted respectively.

A large contribution to the potential calming in global emissions is thought to be a recent plateau in the world’s largest emitter, China. This is partially due to China reportedly overestimating its annual emissions in 2013 as the country used global average emission factors, rather than specific figures for the unique carbon content of its domestic coal supply.

Global C02 emissions globally by region

Regionally meanwhile, we see that the emissions across a number of high-income countries in Europe and the Americas have peaked and were falling during the last decade.

However the apparent slowdown cannot be used to concretely ascertain whether it represents a peak, with a reduction to follow, or a plateau yet. In the longer term, the picture will become clearer, but in the meantime a sustained effort will be required not just to maintain any stabilisation, but to bring those levels down drastically in order to meet the criteria of the Paris Agreement.

The unprecedented accord, which came into effect in November 2016 after being signed by 195 countries, aims to limit the global average temperature to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with an ideal target of 1.5 °C also set, in order to reduce the impact of man-made climate change.

The treaty also aims to encourage economies to foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production; while adapting markets finance flows toward low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development – a requirement that has seen several large consulting industry players advise companies and national governments on a range of fronts.

Top 20 most polluting countries

According to figures unadjusted for population size, the top 20 polluters most only include three European nations, with Germany in 8th accounting for 950,000 tonnes in emissions per year, the UK in 16th emitting 590,000 tonnes, and France – joint 20th with South Africa – on 500,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.

The 20 most polluting countries in the world

US emissions are the matter of continued debate, as with current figures stating an output of 6.3 million metric tonnes per year, the second largest global polluter recently withdrew from the Paris Agreement, with the new administration of long-time climate-change denier Donald Trump seemingly intent on ramping up America’s non-renewable-based industries, during his first term in the White House.

Despite having apparently reigned in its collective emissions levels meanwhile, China still ranks head and shoulders above the rest of the largest global emitter, with the nation’s annual amount standing at 12.3 million tonnes. That is just under double its nearest equivalent America – however, with the largest national population in the world, over 1.3billion, China’s considerably higher output is perhaps to be expected.

Notice should also be taken of the portion of this output which China puts towards producing consumer goods for the West. A study conducted by Davis and Caldeira in 2010 estimated that if researchers switched to a consumption-based reporting system which accounted for this trade), China’s annual CO2 emissions would fall by as much as 22%, while numerous European economies would increase by around a third, and the US would increase by 10%.

UK a top polluter

While the UK currently account for a smaller 590,000 metric tonnes of yearly emissions meanwhile, the country’s far smaller population of 65.1million coupled with its own penchant for Chinese-produced goods make it’s standing far less impressive.

Compared to its European neighbours, the UK also fares poorly, with France emitting over 400,000 metric tonnes less than Britain despite hosting a population which is over one million larger. According to the most recently available statistics meanwhile, Germany meanwhile is home to some 81.4million people, which goes a way to explain their own larger pollution output.