China currently releases more carbon emissions than any other country — leading many to believe it bears the greatest responsibility for climate change. However, the situation is more complex than it seems.
In 2019, China emitted 10.2 billion metric tons of CO2 — nearly twice as much as the United States (5.3 billion metric tons) — representing nearly 28% of global emissions.
To get more insight, it’s worth looking at carbon dioxide emissions per capita. When combining 2019 data from theGlobal Carbon Projectand Our World in Data, numerous states from the Caribbean and the Persian Gulf top the list. In 14th place is the US, with just over 16 tons of CO2 per capita. China emits less than half of that per capita, tallying 7.1 tons, putting the country in 48th place.
The data shows that although China is the second-largest emitter of carbon emissions as of 2019, it has emitted 220 billion metric tons of CO2 since 1750 — just over half as much as the US, which released 410 billion metric tons.
Germany’s historical emissions total 92 billion metric tons, putting it in fourth place behind Russia and ahead of the UK.
China is a CO2 exporter. If the statistics are adjusted for emissions for products that go abroad, Chinese CO2 balance drops by 10%.
As CICERO researcher Andrew explains, this effect was even greater for China around 15 years ago. In the mid-2000s, export goods were responsible for about one-fifth of China’s emissions.
So when we talk about responsibility for climate change, the nation-state’s impact can’t be the only benchmark used: Transportation also has a significant share. In 2018,shippingwas responsible for about 2.9% of human-caused CO2 emissions. Theshare of civil aviationwas similar in 2019, at just over 2% (although this is somewhat higher considering atmospheric effects of flying).
“I would say that China is not exclusively to blame for climate change,” concludes Raghav. But with China currently the world’s largest carbon emitter, she adds, Beijing now plays a critical role when it comes to taking responsibility in the fight against warming.