Climate change threatens to transform the world as we know it. The effects worldwide are already palpable: ocean and sea-level rise, warmer temperatures and increased frequency of high precipitation events to name just a few. Further warming is imminent in the decades to come.
Equitable sharing of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions between individuals, countries, and regions has been an endless point of contention in international discussions because metrics used to compare the carbon footprint tell different stories. Moreover, developed countries' reluctance to take responsibility for their emissions is, in many ways, a looming hot potato for climate policy.
Allocating emissions to someone doesn’t necessarily mean that they are responsible for them. So, who is responsible for climate change?
Singling out the real culprit necessitates understanding the many ways in which emissions are broken down. First, let’s look at:
The current giants in global emissions
The data below analyses the top 20 countries with the highest carbon footprint on the planet in 2018.
China is the leading country globally in carbon emissions by far, heightening the carbon footprint at a breakneck pace with 10.06 billion metric tons. Fossil fuels are the primary source of CO₂ emissions, notably coal burning. About 58% of the overall energy derived in China comes from coal alone. Besides, China is one of the largest importers of oil, largely contributing to air pollution through the country’s use of motor vehicles.
Of the three top emitters, China and India have experienced tremendous increases since 2005 while on the other hand; the U.S. has experienced double-digit declines, as have Japan and Germany.
It is also evident that Asia is the regional leader, accounting for more than 50%, north america 18%, and Europe 17%. Africa, South America, and Oceania combined only contributed 8%.
What caused the downward spiral in the carbon footprint?
Significant changes in coal consumption are the prime drivers behind most of the countries mentioned above.
- China and India have to, a great extent, expanded their usage of coal, while the U.S. and the EU have realized sharp declines in coal consumption.
- A key driver in the U.S. and Germany was the legislation limiting the carbon footprint, consequently spurring rapid growth in renewable energy usage in both countries. As a result, it helped lower the demand for coal.
- In the U.S., an even more significant driver in reducing coal consumption was the shale gas boom, which created extensive supplies of cheap natural gas, reducing its carbon emissions by more than any other country since the Kyoto Protocol.
China is still the most critical country concerning curbing the current carbon dioxide emissions. What China does — or doesn’t do — will substantially determine the failure or success of the Paris Accord in reining the global emissions.
To get a clearer picture of who is responsible for climate change, we need to further analyze how the global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO₂) have changed over time.
Which countries emitted the most in total?
Since CO₂ added to the atmosphere can linger there for millennia, historical emissions are just as important- or even more important than current emissions.
The comparative study captured below shows the top countries' cumulative emissions from 1751 through 2019.
Below are the key points to note:
- The U.S has emitted more carbon dioxide than any other country to date, about 400 billion tonnes since 1751, and is responsible for 25% of historical emissions. This is twice China’s contribution.
- The 28 European Union countries grouped (EU-28) are equally sizable historical contributors at 22%.
- Many of the large emitters today, such as India and Brazil, are not significant contributors in a historical context.
- Africa’s regional contribution has been very minimal due to low per capita emissions.
In the quest for who is responsible for climate change, some argue that the top cumulative emitters should bear a greater responsibility for curbing their carbon dioxide output because they are the genesis of today’s global warming crisis.
What were the driving forces behind these emissions?
What is abundantly clear is that despite China and India contributing a large share to the current global emissions, most of the warming experienced today is due to the carbon footprint of wealthier countries like the United States and the EU-28.
The birth of the industrial revolution triggered a dramatic rise in global emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes. Wealthy nations have already profited from this model; the biggest share of the burden in cleaning up this mess should buckle down to them.
Looking at the historical emissions alone is insufficient to conclude a country’s footprint because of other factors like geography and population density which play a big role as well. This brings us to the third metric of classifying emissions - per capita.
Which countries emit the most per person?
The chart below captures the countries that are leading in emissions per capita.
Focusing on countries' emissions is a blend of population and total emissions. Countries with higher populations have higher emissions accordingly. But the picture changes when we focus on an individual.
A person emits an average of 4.8 tonnes of CO₂ per year. But averages can be deceptive because gas and oil-producing nations are outliers. Therefore, basing calculations on averages doesn’t depict a fair picture.
In 2018, Saudi Arabia had the highest emissions at 18.48 tonnes (t) per person, followed by Kazakhstan (17.60t); Australia (16.92t); United States (16.56t); Canada (15.32t), and South Korea (12.89t).
What explains the variation in CO₂ emissions per capita?
- Levels of GDP: Countries with higher incomes use more petrol, consume more and have high industrial productions, which cause pollution.
- The focus of the economy: Gas and Oil-based economies (like Qatar, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates) usually have the highest levels of emissions per capita.
- Transport policy: Countries like the U.S with Western Europe have elevated levels of car use which results in higher carbon footprints.
- Modes of Power generation: Countries leaning towards renewables have lower CO₂ emissions per capita.
Consumer-based emissions vs. production-based emissions
There are two categories of human-induced GHG emissions, production-based emissions (PBE) and consumer-based emissions (CBE). PBE (territorial) are emissions generated from the domestic production of goods and services, irrespective of whether they are consumed locally or are exported.
Since the Kyoto Protocol and its subsequent agreements, including the most recent Paris Agreement, it is a requirement for countries to prepare their national GHG emission inventories based on the PBE. However, this approach has been criticized for not taking into account the international emission flows of goods and services and the impact of consumption on the environment.
Therefore, to remedy this problem and better understand environmental footprints, it is proposed to calculate the national footprint based on CBE (or trade adjusted.), which estimates GHG emissions through a consumption lens.
The CBE approach accounts for emissions linked to local consumption of goods and services, irrespective of where they were produced. The model incorporates emissions in five lifecycle phases:
- Pre-sales transportation
- Wholesale and retail
- Post-consumer disposal.
Trade-adjusted models typically reflect on household consumption (food, furnishings, clothing, and electronics).
On the downside, consumer-based emissions may not give a fair representation of a country’s carbon footprint. As a case in point, Switzerland’s emissions per person are relatively low if consumption is omitted from the equation since a large proportion of these emissions are from imports and occur abroad.
What’s the variance between the two models?
The difference between the two approaches lies in the balance of CO₂ distribution between two trading partners.
- Generally, PBE provides significant advantages to countries outsourcing their emissions to some developing countries. The controversy raised from this model is that the importers of emission-intensive goods should bear the carbon removal responsibility.
- The import and export trade patterns of a country greatly influence the type of emissions model. For instance, if a country’s imports exceed the exports, the country will most likely have a higher CBE than PBE.
To conclude, climate change is a cumulative issue, a function of the total greenhouse gases accumulated in the sky, current emission trends, and population dynamics.
Tagging it as blame or not, the fundamental question of who is responsible for climate change is necessary and will inevitably influence the solutions proposed to fix it. The narrative that individual actions alone can combat climate change is flawed because such interventions only have minute effects.
Some experts have raised concerns that hesitation in taking responsibility may be seen as a get-out-of-jail-free card for developed countries who got rich by polluting without restraint and now expect developing countries to refrain from industrialization and stay poor.
Whether it’s the heavyweights in historical emissions like the U.S and the EU (who still emit a lot per person) or the current giants in emissions like China, placing the blame on someone’s door will not solve the puzzle.
Untangling power and decision-making structures should create the necessary push for the rich nations to lead the way in cleaning up their ancestors' mess by developing and disseminating low-cost and low-carbon technologies. This will ensure a smooth transition in developing countries, ultimately shielding them from the disproportionate effects of climate damage. And that is climate justice.