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Who is Most Responsible for Climate Change? [INFOGRAPHIC]

Ivonne Pena's picture
Carnegie Mellon University

I am a PhD Candidate at the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and the Technical University of Lisbon, Portugal, and member of the Center for Climate and...

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  • Sep 30, 2013 11:00 pm GMT

Which countries are responsible for climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions to date? In light of the release of the working group I (WGI) contribution for the IPCC fifth assessment for climate change, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s September 20th announcement of new limits to carbon emissions from coal and gas power plants (details here), this post aims to put into perspective the cumulative carbon emissions emitted to date by the U.S. and other countries.

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More than 200 lead authors and 600 contributing authors from all over the world prepared the WGI contribution, and reported “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”. Particularly, anthropogenic CO2 emissions that have concentrated in the atmosphere are the largest contributor to total radiative forcing, which is leading to surface warming. Cumulative CO2 has increased by 40% since pre-industrial times –reaching unprecedented levels in at least the last 800,000 years, and the ocean has absorbed 30% of all emitted anthropogenic CO2, causing ocean acidification. Given the climate dynamics and the persistent effects of past emissions in the atmosphere, limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of green house gases.

How responsible is the U.S. for climate change?

Cumulative Carbon Emissions

The infographic above, which I’ve produced using data from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, sheds light on the cumulative emissions to date from major emitters.

In 1960 the U.S. had been the biggest contributor to the cumulative amount of carbon emitted globally, representing almost 40% of the world cumulative carbon emissions from fossil fuels and cement production. The second largest contributor by 1960 was the U.K., which had emitted approximately 15%, followed by Germany and France, with 11% and 5% of the total cumulative world carbon emissions, respectively.

Today, total global cumulative carbon emissions have quadrupled from 1960’s levels to about 335 billion metric tons. The U.S. has slightly reduced its global share, but is still the largest contributor of cumulative emissions (by 2010), accounting for a not-so-modest 27% of the total. Moreover, it is still the second largest contributor of annual global emissions. In fact, the reduction in its global share is due to the changes in the global scenario, as big developing economies emerge. Today’s Russia’s share in cumulative emissions is 11%, followed by China with 10%. The next largest contributors are the U.K. and France, each representing about 6%, and Germany with 5%. 

Recently, some developing countries are beginning to contribute annually as much as developed countries. In 2010, of the roughly 8.6 billion tons emitted globally (Gt), the top annual emitters included China, India and Russia. Specifically, the largest contributors were China (26%), U.S. (17%), India (6%), Russia (6%) and Japan (4%). These five countries account together for 60% of all annual global emissions. U.S. and Japan annual emissions represent a third of the emissions of this group, while the developing economies of China, Russia and India represent two thirds.

On the other hand, while the U.S. has almost doubled its annual emissions since 1960, other developed economies have made more progress in limiting their emissions. For example, the U.K. is the only country that has decreased its annual emissions since 1960, from 159 to 135 million tons in 2010, and Germany presents a modest increase, from 148 to 203 million.

Power plant emissions standards are a step toward taking responsibility.

The U.S. has made efforts to reduce its carbon emissions, including higher fuel economy standardsregional carbon emissions regulations and state-level renewable energy targets.

EPA’s proposed regulations would now limit emissions from coal and natural gas-fired power plants to 1,100 pounds and 1,000 pounds of CO2 per MWh –about 0.14 and 0.12 tons of carbon per MWh. The new rules are another strategic part of President’s Obama Climate Action Plan, which “aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions levels in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels if all other major economies agreed to limit their emissions as well”  (Editor’s note: check out this video for the ins and outs of Obama’s climate plan).

Since power plants are the largest concentrated source of emissions in the United States, this first federal standard for carbon emissions for new power plants is a powerful step in achieving Obama’s goal. Americans should be proud of U.S. efforts to take responsibility for its past and to begin cleaning up the future.

These figures show cumulative carbon emissions up to 1960 and up to 2010 from 18 representative countries spanning all continents and income levels.  The Oak Ridge National Laboratory data are cumulatives since: Afghanistan (1949), Bolivia (1928), Brazil (1901), China (1899), Colombia (1901), Egypt (1911), France (1802), Germany (1972), India (1858), Indonesia (1889), Japan (1950), Mali (1959), Mexico (1891), Philippines (1907), Russia (1830), Senegal (1958), South Africa (1884), UK (1751), U.S. (1800). China does not include Hong Kong. Other useful infographics related to carbon emissions can be found here and here.

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Guy Dauncey's picture
Guy Dauncey on Sep 30, 2013

Fantastic work, Ivonne. Many thanks! I’ll use this in my presentations.

As soon as you are ready for your next project, I’d love to have a similar infographic that shows the global emissions by source – coal, oil, gas, deforestation, livestock, methane (broken down by source),CFCs, etc. 


John NIchols's picture
John NIchols on Sep 30, 2013

If the Chinese people elect to overthrow the communist regime, and the Indian culture wishes to abandon their now informal caste system, maybe they can enjoy western prosperty.

Until then, no one should reduce energy consumption.  Energy consumption fuels prosperty, leads to lower population growth, promotes better health outcomes, and offers lower mortality experience. 

The claim that fossil fuels worsens health (externalities) is based on models, which have as much validity as the now discredited climate models – 17 years of no increase in global temperature, with no modeler predicting the so-called “pause”. The modelers now offer the “ocean sink” as an ad hoc reason for the failure of the models. 

In reality, the models fail because they are not an accurate representation of the earth’s complex climate, and they overestimate temperature sensitivity due to increasing levels of CO2.

The most likely reason the climate changes is increase and decrease in solar activity.  The climate will change, because it always changes, the best humanity can do is adapt.

Taxing people for CO2 emission and redistributing wealth solves nothing.  The taxes slow innovation and favor special interest, thereby increasing the control of government. The consolidation of control leads to either communisim or facism – and people die, usually in the millions. 

The climate change hoax is perpetuated by the rent-seekers, who desire subsidies to further their own self-interest, at the expense of eveyone else, the politicians who want power, and happily offer special deals to the well connected in order to get their money, and lastly, the ‘useful idiots’, who think they are “saving the world”, but only promote the Marxist utopian agenda of the ideologues.

The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them. – attributed to Lenin

Those who cannot remember the past arecondemned to repeat it Santayan


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 1, 2013

Knowing about the problem is sooo yesterday. Dissecting it is rather morbid…. but the real solution is debating how to develop the lowest cost way to the most abundant low carbon sources capable of powering (more than) a planetary civilization.

Carbon taxes and CCS is not part of any solution. The renewables could be when they AND their storage, together, is as cheap as new advanced nuclear (and when environmentalists allow the coverage of about 1% of Earth’s land).

Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Oct 1, 2013

Thanks for the post Ivonne. It’s nice to see the US past and present emissions in perspective to Global GHGs and emissions.I see that India and China are both cooperationg with President Obama and the Global Community in mitigating GHGs and HFCs in another post in The Energy Collective today as well. This is encouraging news.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Oct 1, 2013

Concerning the question of “who’s responsible” I think it would be more usefull to distribute the blame across lobbying sectors rather than countries. The US’s poor record on co2 emissions is largely the result of its failure to construct nuclear power plants after the 70’s. If the USA had built out its nuclear capacity as originally planned – like France did for example – then its carbon output would have been far less. And allowing for some additional technological progress throughout the past few decades (if such had been pursued, which is wasn’t much), the USA could have already today been largely carbon-free, running off of domestic 4th generation nuclear power for most of it’s energy needs, including liquid fuels derived from nuclear powered fuel synthesis.

So the USA as a country cannot really be blamed for what happened to it. The blame should be put on the pro-fossil and anti-nuclear lobbies which have traditionally been very successfull in the USA.

Blaming “countries” over co2 emissions does not explain much, and does not indicate a possible path to a solution of the problem, but blaming lobbying sectors grants much more insight and more possible solution pathways, IMO.


Ivonne Pena's picture
Ivonne Pena on Oct 1, 2013

Thank you very much Guy! Yes, yesterday I was discussing how a similar graph but showing all GHGs would probably provide more insight. Also, normalizing by population can also provide additional information. Do you know a good database of global GHGs?

Guy Dauncey's picture
Guy Dauncey on Oct 1, 2013

Can you email me directly?


Ivonne Pena's picture
Ivonne Pena on Oct 1, 2013

Hi Nadir,

Thank you for your comment. Although I agree that a per capita graph can provide additional information, it is also true that the total numbers are quite important. Particularly, total numbers can raise questions if ‘as a whole’ a country have a significant impact. It is true that China and India have much lower numbers in per capita terms than the U.S. but that does not mean that they are not having an impact and they do not share responsibility. I think that the fact that China and India are very large countries is important because the total effect will at the end be the sum of every citizen’s impact, and as a country can dictate the rules for all their citizens.


From what you suggest: what do you think is more interesting, plotting energy consumed per capita or GHG emissions per capita? 


Ivonne Pena's picture
Ivonne Pena on Oct 1, 2013

Well, is not only about power generation. GHGs are emitted from all human activities. They come from any type of energy transformation in our production/consumption chain. I agree that discussing mechanisms to ameliorate and adapt to climate change might be more pressing than defining the problem, but I really think it is important to have a global perspective in order to be critical about goals and national targets proposed. 

John NIchols's picture
John NIchols on Oct 1, 2013

Communism, fascism, and the caste system seeks to suppress natural rights. The ideologue (as defined) seeks to use alternative energy, and the accompanying regulations and mandates, as a means to achieve collectivist goals. I hope this statement makes my postion more clear. 

Van Jones, an avowed communist, makes no secret of his love affair with green jobs, jobs which never replace the jobs lost because of rising energy costs.

Please response as you wish, but my analysis is accurate.  Proof to the contrary is always welcome, opinions are irrelevant.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Oct 4, 2013

So John, is one of your natural rights the unfettered ability to pollute the air I breath and the water I drink and to alter the climate for me and my children? And in your opinion is someone who make a decision to use alternative energy simply because it is more economical not living up to their collectivist goals?  I think your mini-rant could stand some more meat before it can be considered an analysis and less hyperbole before it could be confused with accurate.

John NIchols's picture
John NIchols on Oct 4, 2013


 Mr Goudey your claims lack proof.

US life expectancy for a man born in 1900 was age 50.  Today, it is north of 80.  If tthe US was so polluted how cold this occur?

It occured because of access to affordable energy – lots of it.  Energy used to provide better saniitation, refrigeration, air conditioning, heatiing, agriculture, transportation, hospitals, you name it.

No sir, I have no intention of polluting the planet. I have every intention of working to improve the global human condition by ensuring access to plentful, affordable energy.

The goal of the sustainability crowd is to control poeple. I want to free them, so they can enjoy a happy, healthy, even longer life. How they pursue this is up to them, not you or me.




Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Oct 4, 2013

John, that increase in life expectancy in the US has everything to do with sanitation, nutrition, and health-care advances.  While I realize you covet your posh lifestyle, it is not a prerequisite to longevity. 

No one accused you of intentionally polluting the planet.  It’s an unintended consequence of the situation into which many have been thrust.  Consider for a moment if all that affordable energy had come from renewable sources instead of the wanton combustion of our finite fossil fuel treasures. 

If you really want to improve the human condition try helping us get off fossil fuels now rather than waiting until they are either gone or so difficult to extract that they become unaffordable. 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 4, 2013

Currently, fossil fuels are powering a stagnating planetary civilization. Eventually, into fossil fueled depletion. The next step is to secure a source that is MORE powerful, not less, in order to continue the growth of civilization and to continue with the much longer lifespans and better lives in generalfor the individual that John pointed to. Renewables have their place and should be developed much further ONLY if they can truly be “a more powerful source”. Imagine an all renewable energy powered world… Collection for 20 to 25% of the time “its on” (capacity) and then the remaining 75% or so “overbuild”… And then the storage needed to store that excess for when its needed. Powerlines into remote areas and across borders need to be a given necessity. If environmentalists REALLY wanted clean energy, they would promote quite literally, hundreds of thousands of square miles of solar and wind (and such powerlines, mining for parts and batteries, etc).

But they won’t, hence John’s concerns, right?

The best we can do is opt for advanced machine automation of ALL the parts for DIRT cheap (including batteries). This will take many decades only if we really push for it. Meanwhile, fossil fuels will have become too expensive to complete the gigantuan task on a “cheap as dirt” basis necessary to make it a worth while endeavor. Remember, we need like FIVE TIMES the current world primary energy source, in order to properly power the global civilization, so as to keep the economy going past debts. Right now, the non hydro renewables don’t even provide 5% of current.

Again, the enviro’s don’t want any part of a scientifically sound fossil fuels replacement strategy, thus they MUST be in a conspiracy to LIMIT our energy choices (or so it seems).

Neither does nuclear provide a substantial fraction… So, we have to focus on the best source that can most easily be scaled up to major planetary proportions ASAP, in order to survive the otherwise fossil fueled depletions (hence why I promote the re-development and fast tracking of the molten salt reactor or LFTR). The much more dense fission process guarantees that we can do leaps and bounds over fossil fuels… if only we would WANT to learn to control it (and confine the fission products).

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Oct 4, 2013

Right, Robert, “electricity so cheap we won’t need a meter.”  When did we last hear that?  Sorry, but I’ll put my energies into renewable technologies that we know work and that don’t have the risks and costs of what you are advocating.  But have at it, and please do write when you get there.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 4, 2013

Thank you Ivonne for this informative post. As an American I realize we must take more responsibility for the energy we use and its impacts, and there is little time to waste.

The exceptionalist opinions elsewhere on the thread are disturbingly prevalent. When it comes to climate we are one world community whether some choose to recognize it, or not.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 4, 2013

Why does the future of energy have to be based on the past? Realize we are a planetary civilization and let’s just get on it and develop the BEST possible way to trump FF’s…

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Oct 8, 2013

From where I sit there is one, and only one, option that can address both poverty and climate change, and it is one of the most often maligned forms of energy there is, nuclear energy.    As I have been involved in the struggle for nuclear energy for some time now, and as I am clearly on the losing side in terms of seeing my vision realized, I foresee a very, very, very, very bleak future for humanity.”

I have a similar experience. But we should not give up. Things could develop very quickly, concerning nuclear. We need to keep up the pressure, and mention the “n-word” whenever it is appropriate.

Years ago, it was an online commenter like you who triggered me to find out more about “the nuclear option”, and I’ve never looked back. Don’t underestimate the effect of online advocacy. Just my two cents.

Ivonne Pena's picture
Ivonne Pena on Oct 8, 2013

Thanks for your comment, I appreciate it.

Ivonne Pena's picture
Ivonne Pena on Oct 8, 2013

Renewable power costs have decreased over time, as there is more capacity installed and technology gets better. This has happened with many industries in history, and the power industry is not the exception. In January, the EIA published the latest cost estimates for plants entering into service in 5 years from now (2018). For instance, you can see that wind power total system levelized costs (which takes into account not only capital and O&M costs but also transmission investment) are lower than conventional coal, nuclear and some natural gas fired power plants.

Now, power generation is just one thing in the energy mix. Electricity consumption accounts generally for about 20 to 30% of total primary energy consumption in a country, meaning that even if it is affordable to build renewables (and we forget about grid constraints) it might not be the unique best strategy to pursue if the goal is to decrease carbon emissions.

But, in all cases, nobody assumes that the quality of life of a person/family/state/country should decrease. In contrast, policies that aim to reduce carbon emissions (i.e. renewables, efficiency in the transport sector, in the industry or in the residential sector, etc) are always considering the increase of the economy (which in many cases is translated into more energy demand). 

Ivonne Pena's picture
Ivonne Pena on Oct 8, 2013

For sure an infographic showing sectors rather than countries would look different. I agree that I don’t show any pathway to a ‘solution’, but I think that understanding the dimension of the problem can make us thinking about adaptation and mitigation pathways. Thanks for the insight.

Ivonne Pena's picture
Ivonne Pena on Oct 8, 2013

Thanks Jessee. I agree: cooperation is key. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 8, 2013

Robert, B.C.’s revenue-neutral carbon tax is making a big impact on emissions, and higher carbon prices make 4th generation nuclear more viable:

It works.



Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Oct 8, 2013

You are welcome Ivonne. Co-operatiion will be key ro any success we may have in Global Warming or Climate Change mitigation on an International basis.

Lowell Michalove's picture
Lowell Michalove on Jun 6, 2014

It’s all about AMERICA’S culture of Energy WASTE; and NO one seems to give a hoot. GlobalWarming to extinction is Our own DUMB fault And will be Our reward for failing to live with a sustainable energy demand.  ONLY fossil fuels can fulfill the supply demand that our hedonist WASTE requires. LOOK around you; the Energy WASTE is everywhere; OverLighting, OverHeating, OverCooling, and OverDRIVING as if it doesn’t matter.

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