The infographic above lists the top 20 countries with the largest carbon emissions since 1850, pulling out data from Carbon Brief.
Global warming did not start just yesterday or even this year; it is a result of cumulative global greenhouse gas emissions over a long period of time. There has been a heated discussion — “Who is responsible for today’s global warming?” Spotting one single contributor always ends up with blame game. However, knowing which countries have historically emitted the most greenhouse gases can be a starting point to assign fair responsibility.
Since When Global Warming Has Been an Issue?
As early as 1960s, scientist raised awareness about global warming. The term “global warming” started appearing in scientific papers around this time. In the next two decades, consensus on global warming was gradually formed among scientists, which led to a joint conference in 1985 by three international organizations, International Council for Science(ICSU), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
The Villach conference — as it was held in Villach, Austria — aimed to bring the issue of global warming onto the international policy agenda which had been only discussed by scientists to that day. Clearly, global warming was a much more urgent issue than previously thought, which required a collaboration between scientists and policymakers.
Following the Villach conference, WMO and UNEP formed IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) in 1988. The IPCC provides policymakers with regular assessments on climate change, its implications and potential future risks.
In the 1990s, the issue of climate change and global warming became more and more public. The Earth’s rising temperature was front-page news, with media increasingly covering the topic.
When Did Global Warming Start?
Scientists first became aware of global warming in the 1960s, but the issue was initially discussed in a confined study space. Then in the 1980s, policymakers were brought into the discussion as the situation was becoming more serious than expected. By the 1990s, global warming became a public concern, making headlines in major news outlets.
However, although global warming did not become the talk of the town until the late 20th century, the Earth started warming much earlier.
A 2016 study by the Australian National University found that the earliest signs of warming developed around the 1830s to 1850s in the tropical oceans and over northern hemisphere continents. The warming of these parts of the world were kick-started by the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution which started from around 1760 increased productivity, made the world wealthier, and improved the quality of life. It also helped population grow. As a result of increased human activities such as burning fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions increased unprecedentedly since the Industrial Revolution. Then the Earth quickly responded to the increased greenhouse gases, warming temperatures.
Cumulative CO2 Emissions Determine Today’s Warming
Dr Simon Evans analyzed historical responsibility for climate change in his article “Analysis: Which countries are historically responsible for climate change?” on CarbonBrief. According to this article, there is a direct, linear relationship between the total amount of CO2 released by human activity and the level of warming at the Earth’s surface. Moreover, CO2 emissions hundreds years ago continue to contribute to the heating of the Earth. In other words, the cumulative total of CO2 emissions determines today’s warming.
The article mentions that humans have emitted some 2,504 CO2 Gt since 1850. Furthermore, those cumulative CO2 emissions correspond to warming of around 1.13 °C.
The Top 20 Emitters Since 1850
Dr Simon looks at historical CO2 emissions from 1850 to 2021 which include CO2 emissions from land use and forestry in addition to those from fossil fuels. Although the majority of CO2 emissions are from burning fossil fuels, deforestation and land use change have also contributed to the cumulative amount of CO2 emissions.
The US is the largest CO2 emitter by far when it comes to cumulative total, although today’s world’s largest emitter is China. The US alone has emitted 20.3% of the global total, causing 0.2 °C of warming to date.
China takes second place, followed by Russia. CO2 emissions of these three countries are largely from fossil fuels, though each country also has a relatively big amount of CO2 emissions due to land use.
The forth largest emitter to date is Brazil, followed by Indonesia. Their CO2 emissions are largely due to deforestation, otherwise they have relatively small CO2 emissions due to the use of fossil fuels. In fact, Brazil and Indonesia are the top two countries with the most deforestation from 1990 to 2020. India fits in seventh place with a higher CO2 emissions from land-use change and forestry.
To Sum-up: Countries with the Highest Carbon Emissions Since 1850
The impact of climate change is clear to anyone’s eyes in 2022. From January to September 2022 alone, the world experienced 29 billion-dollar weather disasters, according to the insurance broker Aon’s report. These include Hurricane Ian in Florida, extreme heatwaves and drought in Europe, and floods in Pakistan.
Extreme weather events that we experience today are not only a result of today’s human activities, but also a result of historical human activities. As the world developed and became more prosperous, CO2 emissions increased dramatically by burning more fossil fuels and deforesting more land.
It is not surprising that the US — the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country — has historically emitted the most greenhouse gases in the world. The country has long led the world in development of various fields, such as agricultural productivity, technology, and political stability. At the same time, the country also contributed to 0.2 °C of warming of the Earth.
Assigning fair national responsibilities is indeed a complicated task as it would be necessary to consider populations, border changes, trading, and many other factors. But, at the end of the day, it may all come down to our individual action — what to buy, what to eat, how to travel, who to vote for, and so on.