Which countries have had the highest total CO2 emissions since 1850?

If we look at the current ranking of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, we find China in first place, far ahead of the United States and India. But warming is not instantaneous: it results from the accumulation of CO2 over time. And seen from this angle, the responsibilities are quite different…

The main greenhouse gas emitting countries are logically the most populous and the most industrialised. China leads the way, with 9.8 billion tonnes of CO2 released in 2019, followed by the United States (4.9 billion), India (2.5 billion) and Russia (1.5 billion). With its coal-fired power plants and polluting industries, China is thus accused of being the main culprit in global warming. But the worrying warming we are experiencing today is not the result of last year’s emissions. It is due to the accumulation of CO2 emissions generated mainly since the beginning of the industrial era. Since 1850, humanity has released 2,500 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, which is now contributing to rising temperatures.

The specialised website Carbon Brief has drawn up a ranking of the countries that emit the most CO2, taking into account the accumulation of their emissions since 1850. The analysis includes not only emissions from fossil fuels but also those linked to land use change. The animation below shows the evolution of the ranking over time, guided by the economic development of each country. Although China has been rising rapidly in the rankings in recent years, the United States remains well ahead with 509 billion tonnes of CO2 accumulated since 1850, i.e. 20% of the world total. China comes a long way behind (11%), followed by Russia (7%), Brazil (5%) and Indonesia (4%), the latter two countries owing their low ranking to intensive deforestation over the years. France comes 12th, with 38.5 billion tonnes of CO2 from fossil fuels, minus 3 billion tonnes from forest growth.

Cumulative CO2 emissions per capita

However, this ranking does not take population into account, as the most populous countries naturally emit more CO2. Carbon Brief added up the CO2 emissions per capita year by year (from 1850 to 2021) to calculate the weight of cumulative emissions by population. New Zealand came out on top with 5,764 tonnes per capita, followed by Canada (4,772 tonnes), Australia (4,013 tonnes) and the US (3,820 tonnes). The largest current emitters such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia are all absent from the top 20.

Imported and exported emissions

Another bias in the accounting of responsibilities is the notion of “indirect” emissions. Some countries have massively divested themselves of their polluting industries, in order to import goods produced in other countries which, as a result, are singled out. However, the climate negotiations do not take these “imported” emissions into account, focusing instead on territorial emissions. Establishing a ranking on this criterion is very difficult, as it requires calculating the carbon content of imported goods and analysing trade, which is only available at the global level from 1990. Carbon Brief has nevertheless attempted to do so and publishes a ranking of cumulative emissions taking into account exports and imports. The table is not very different from the first one, but we can see that the United States’ cumulative share has increased by 0.3 percentage points, and China’s has decreased by 1.1 percentage points.

Climate finance lags behind

Developing countries will not fail to make these arguments in the negotiations. This demand has been partially met with the 100 billion in annual funding promised by rich countries to the South from 2020 onwards to help them fight climate change. However, according to the latest OECD report card, this has not been achieved: climate finance has plateaued at $79.6 billion in 2019. “Climate-related export credits remained low at $2.6 billion, representing only 3% of total climate finance,” the organisation laments. Everyone is struggling to acknowledge their responsibilities.