The world is emitting more greenhouse gases (GHGs) than ever before, and countries have been struggling to meet their targets set in the Paris Agreement. According to the European Union's Joint Research Centre, the total global CO2 footprint increased from 34.1 GT in 2010 to 37.9 GT—an all-time high—in 2019.
Greenhouse gas GHG emissions come from a variety of sources, including transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, and electricity generation.
The countries with the largest carbon footprints are often those with large populations and high levels of industrialisation. China, the United States, and India are three of the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2), accounting for nearly half of all emissions. Russia and Japan are also in the top 5 carbon-emitting countries.
If you are curious about the types of greenhouse gas emissions and why these are the top carbon-emitting countries, then this article is for you. We'll look into countries with high carbon footprints, carbon emitters by economic sector, the carbon footprint per capita by country, and the types of GHGs being emitted.
First, let's define what carbon emissions are. Carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHGs, such as methane and nitrous oxide, are released into the atmosphere by human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and raising livestock. These activities release carbon dioxide, which can stay in the atmosphere for up to 200 years, where it traps heat and causes climate change.
The main sources of carbon emissions appear to be from the burning of fossil fuels and from raising livestock. The burning of coal, oil, and gas for energy releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while the raising of livestock emits methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Other sources of carbon emissions include transportation, manufacturing, and agriculture. Transportation is a major source of carbon emissions, especially from cars and airplanes.
Manufacturing industries also produce large amounts of carbon emissions, as do the agricultural sector through activities such as deforestation and fertiliser use.
Let's have a closer look at carbon emissions by sector.
Different carbon emitters by economic sector vary a lot regionally because of the resources and needs of each country. Globally, CO2 makes up 76% of GHG emissions. The sectors that generate the most emissions are:
The harmful and devastating effects of carbon emissions on the environment are well known. Carbon emissions are a major contributor to climate change, which has been linked to a wide range of adverse effects, including:
In addition, carbon emissions are responsible for about one-third of global greenhouse GHG gas emissions, making them a major player in climate change. The more we emit, the greater the risk we take of catastrophic consequences for both people and the planet.
If you would like to know more about how to prevent climate change within your organisation, please check out our academy and downloadable resources:
• Article: Carbon Emissions in the Atmosphere and the Methods of Abating Emissions
• Article: Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States
• Article: Top Countries in the Race to Net Zero Emissions
• Article: What is Net Zero?
• Article: 11 Reasons Net0 Is the Best Carbon Accounting Platform
The world's countries vary greatly in their contribution to global CO2 footprint. Some, like China and the United States, are large emitters, while others, like Norway and Costa Rica, have much smaller footprints.
Understanding a country's carbon footprint is important because it can reveal a lot about that country's environmental impact.
By measuring and reducing their carbon footprints, countries can take steps to mitigate these harmful effects. In addition to understanding their own emissions levels, countries can work together to reduce global CO2 footprint by sharing best practices and strategies for reducing emissions. This type of cooperation is essential for meeting the targets set in the Paris Agreement and avoiding the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.
There are a number of factors that affect global greenhouse GHG gas emissions. These include population growth, economic development, energy use, and land-use patterns, deforestation and agriculture activities, technology and policies.
While all countries emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, not all countries are equal in their carbon footprints. In order to understand a country's environmental impact, it is important to look at the amount of greenhouse gases they emit per capita. This takes into account the size of the country's population and measures the amount of carbon per person.
When looking at carbon footprints per capita, smaller countries like Norway and Costa Rica rank much higher than larger countries like China and the United States. This is because these smaller countries have fewer emissions overall, even though they have large populations.
Larger countries tend to have more emissions because of their high levels of industrialisation. The United States, for example, is a large country with a high level of industrial activity. This leads to more emissions from things like transportation and manufacturing.
Some of the countries with the highest carbon footprints per capita are Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain. These countries have high incomes and high levels of consumption, which leads to more emissions.
In contrast, some of the countries with the lowest carbon footprints per capita are Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Burundi. These countries have lower incomes and consume less, resulting in fewer emissions.
The U.S.'s per capita emissions are 13.68 tons, which is the thirteenth-highest in the world. Russia and Japan rank a little lower at 20th (11.64 tons) and 26th (8.39 tons), while China and India's numbers lay at 28th (8.20) and 110th place with 1.74 respectively. Several developing nations occupy the top spots, largely due to less-regulated energy, industry, and transportation industries.
The top five countries that emit carbon dioxide are China, the United States, India, Japan, and Russia.
With a release of 11680 Mt (11.680 GT) of carbon dioxide in 2020, China is the largest emitter of CO2 in the world, just over 32% of the world's total emissions. It's followed by the United States which contributed 4.535 GT, or roughly 12.6% of the total global emissions for that year. India, the third-largest emitter, emitted 2.849 GT of CO2 in 2020, accounting for 7.9% of the world's total.
These top five countries account for more than 60% of the world's total carbon dioxide emissions. As of 2020, the remaining countries in the top 10 list are Iran (690.24), Germany (636.88), South Korea (621.47), Saudi Arabia (588.81), and Indonesia (568.27).
Now that we know the top carbon-emitting countries, let's explore why they each hold this position.
China is the biggest polluter in the world, emitting more than 10 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. The country's emissions have been growing rapidly in recent years as its economy has boomed.
Transportation and manufacturing are the biggest sources of China's emissions, accounting for about 60% of the total. Coal is the biggest contributor to these emissions, providing about 70% of the country's electricity.
China has taken some steps to address its emissions, including investing in renewable energy and setting targets to reduce coal use. However, the country's emissions are still expected to continue growing in the coming years.
China was at 10.175Mt in 2019, at 11680.42Mt in 2020, and the number has grown since then. They are the last in line for net zero, only agreeing to plan for carbon neutrality in the year of 2060 and their strategies to achieve it are neither transparent nor convincing. Although they have a goal to peak by 2030 and a 140-page document that explains how they will curve it, the details still are not transparent and the statistics do not seem likely to be achievable.
In the United States, their missions primarily come from transportation, industry and power. They emitted 5.285Mt of CO2 in 2019. The chemical sector also produces products from raw materials which is a big emitter. They are also large producers of crude oil. Since they mostly rely on individual transportation, wasting gas and oil, instead of public transportation, and they are big on importing for consumers and other manufactured materials outside of the country, especially reliant on China, the US is the second-highest emitter. The good news is that they have decreased emissions and have strategies, awareness, and willingness to carry out the strategies.
According to Climate Action Tracker, the USA is far from sufficient in achieving their targets to combat the problem:
India is the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide at 2.616Mt in 2019 which has doubled since 2009 due to industrialization and their consumption of solid fuels and coal. Coal being used for electricity rose between 68% in 1992 to 75% in 2015 because it is cheaper than importing gas.
Waste management, agriculture, and deforestation also contribute to emissions in India. The rapidly growing population and economy are the main drivers of emissions growth.
India has pledged to reduce its emissions intensity by 33-35% below 2005 levels by 2030. However, this target is not sufficient to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Even though India has pledged to reduce emissions, their target is not sufficient and they are continuing to increase emissions at a rapid pace.
Russia is the fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, emitting 1.763Mt in 2019. The majority of their emissions come from the energy sector, which accounted for about 70% of their total in 2018. The remaining emissions come from the industrial sector (20%), transportation (6%), and agriculture (4%).
Russia has set a target to reduce its emissions by 25-30% below 1990 levels by 2030. However, this target is not sufficient to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Reuters reports, "The ambassadors urged Russia to "seize this opportunity" to develop renewable energy, green technologies and protect carbon-consuming forests, to help boost its economy and create jobs in low-carbon sectors. Russia is a major producer of oil and gas, fossil fuels that when combusted produce the greenhouse GHG gas emissions driving climate change."
Japan's emissions are relatively low compared to the other top emitters. They emitted 1.186Mt of CO2 in 2019. The majority of their emissions come from the energy sector, which accounted for about 60% of their total in 2018. The remaining emissions come from the industrial sector (30%), transportation (9%), and agriculture (1%).
Japan is the fifth highest emitter, using coal and natural gas for electricity for individuals and industries. The Fukushima disaster led to an increase in the burning of fossil fuels. Now, Japan plans on reopening its nuclear power reactors to generate power again and become less reliant on imported fuel - this should help them decrease their dependency on fossil fuels overall. However, after the last nuclear accident that had caused ecosystems to be in jeopardy for centuries, renewable energy from offshore wind projects and solar power would be better than nuclear power which causes problems that could make them pay a worse price environmentally and economically than carbon emissions.
While Japan has great potential to develop renewables and has the desire to achieve net zero by 2050, turning investors towards localised renewable energy like offshore wind farms would be a positive shift in their energy mix. They do have plans on using 24% of renewables in the future but with very little wind power (1.7%) despite being an archipelago favourable for offshore projects.
Japan has proposed the following power mix by 2030:
Japan has set a target to reduce its emissions by 26% below 2013 levels by 2030. However, this target is not sufficient to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Countries need to take significant and drastic measures to reduce carbon footprint. Here are some of the strategies:
At Net0, we are doing our part to help countries reach their emissions goals. Our AI-powered emissions management platform is thoughtfully designed, intuitive and user-friendly. It is suitable for government departments and businesses of all sizes.
Tackling climate change is a daunting task, but it is one that we must all take on if we want to leave a livable planet for future generations. With Net0, you can be sure that you are taking the necessary steps to reduce your carbon footprint and do your part to save the planet.
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While some countries are working harder than others to reduce their emissions, every country needs to do their part to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement. If countries work together, we can slow down climate change and prevent catastrophic environmental damage. Net0 provides the solutions to help governments, public companies and large businesses reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change. Contact us to learn more about Net0.