Daily Environment Repost

The biggest carbon polluters are those who can afford it

The statistics clearly show China, the USA, and India as the three largest emitters of greenhouse gases.  This group contributes just under 50% of the world’s total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions each year. However, a more revealing analysis of carbon emissions looks at countries whose citizens are the biggest polluters. These data reveal that big carbon footprints are expensive, and those who can afford it are the biggest carbon polluters.

The world’s annual output of CO2 is about 36 billion metric tons. The top 15 contributing countries account for 72 percent of the total emissions, and the rest of the world kicks in the remaining 28 percent. CO2 emissions have risen from under a billion tons per year in 1883 to 36 billion tons today. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The jump from 1 billion tons to 10 billion took 80 years, but moving from 10 billion to 36 billion took only 57 years. The last half of the twentieth century marked a rapid acceleration in carbon output.

Energy access and prosperity

The improvement of average living standards over the past century in countries like the USA resulted mainly from cheap and plentiful energy. Accessible energy drives commerce and manufacturing, thus creating jobs and wealth. This process is a standard model playing out today in many underdeveloped countries. 

However, cheap energy and innovation have done more than provide money; they have also made that money go farther. When a consumer buys a cheap plastic mixing bowl from Wal-Mart, they pay their share of a production chain that starts with pumping oil from the ground as a raw product. The oil is transformed into plastic feedstock and then sent to a plant that uses it to produce mixing bowls. Then trucks, burning fossil fuels, transport the finished bowls to the store where consumers buy them.

Virtually every item in our stores has some carbon footprint. Therefore, the more we buy, the larger the carbon footprint. The link between wealth, energy usage, and carbon emissions is clear. Larger homes, more cars, frequent air travel, and rampant consumption all cost money, and they all increase our individual carbon footprints. 

The list

The U.S. has the distinction of being one of the top three carbon emitters both as a nation and on a per capita basis also. The country is in first place on the annual emissions-per-capita list with 16.5 metric tons per person as of 2017. However, China, the largest polluter as a nation, ranks seventh on the per capita list, and India comes in thirteenth. 

The USA, Australia, and Canada have the highest emissions per capita, all above 15 metric tons per year. All other countries fall into the single digits (under 10 tons), with the Netherlands coming in fourth place at 9.9 metric tons per year.

The ranking of per capita carbon emissions points out how high individual emissions require a certain level of wealth and affluence. However, it also demonstrates that affluent lifestyles do not necessarily translate into high emissions. France, Spain, and Sweden all rank below China. France and the Netherlands both have approximately the same GDP, yet per capita, carbon emissions in the Netherlands are twice as high as France. This difference is largely the result of emissions from producing electricity.

Primary energy sources for electricity are a significant determinant in the carbon equation. An electric car owner in Washington State will reduce their automobile carbon emissions by 92 percent, but the same car in West Virginia will only reduce the carbon footprint by 20 percent. 

The production of carbon-free electricity is a critical factor in controlling carbon emissions. It is also a pressure point subject to regulatory control and a logical focal point for initiating a low carbon future. It doesn’t solve all problems, but it certainly makes an excellent starting point.


Controlling your carbon footprint – Sort of (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2020/02/03/controlling-your-carbon-footprint-sort-of/  Also:


Chart of the day: These countries create most of the world’s CO2 emissions (Source: World Economic Forum) – https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/06/chart-of-the-day-these-countries-create-most-of-the-world-s-co2-emissions/  Also:

Top CO2 polluters and highest per capita (By Tejvan Pettinger; Economics Help) – https://www.economicshelp.org/blog/10296/economics/top-co2-polluters-highest-per-capita/ Also:

Feature Image: Four Corners Generating Station (Modified) – By NPS – United States National Park Service (NPS). “Air Quality Core Slides: Sources of Air Pollution” (archived URL), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17444

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.