Carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase across the globe, with only a handful of governments actively working to decrease emissions. The top ten CO2 emitting countries account for 67.6 percent of global emissions. For over a decade, China has led the world in CO2 emissions – however, the country still produces less than half of the emissions per person compared to the United States. Some of the largest increases to global carbon emissions in the past two decades have come from countries in Asia, Central America, and South America. These regions have grown rapidly and continue to rely heavily on coal, a major source of carbon emissions. To understand the impact of these emissions and where they come from, we need to look more in depth at the top carbon emission countries.
Who monitors carbon emissions?
Several entities collect and collate data related to carbon dioxide emissions from each country. Most reports rely on the data presented by the European Commission and Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) Database. The EDGAR database was updated in 2018 with CO2 emission estimates for 2017. The agency also tracked emissions in 1990 and 2005, allowing researchers to analyze increases and decreases in different countries. Many of the top five contributors to carbon emissions in 1990 remain at the top of the list. A closer look at these countries, meanwhile, can help us understand the activities that contribute most to greenhouse gases.
China is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases. The country released an estimated 10,877 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2) in 2017. This marks a 353 percent increase compared to 1990 estimates. In the past two decades, China has surpassed the United States as the top carbon dioxide producer. The country produces an estimated 29.34 percent of all carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere across the globe, with the main source of emissions in China coming from coal burning to fuel its industrialization. Sixty-four percent of China’s energy consumption comes from coal. While China has decreased its dependence on coal since 2011, the country has increased its use of natural gas and crude oil. China is also one of the largest oil importers, with motor vehicles contributing to the country’s overall emissions. Research suggests that one-fifth of China’s carbon emissions come from the agricultural sector, mostly from the application of fertilizer. To combat the impact of agriculture on the environment, China is working to implement projects designed to reduce water contamination and soil contamination.
In 2004, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced plans to make the country more energy efficient. As part of these plans, the country began closing inefficient power plants. For every two new plants constructed, the country shuttered one inefficient plant. Also the leading investor in wind turbines and various sources of renewable energy, China committed $34.6 billion to clean technologies in 2009. This is part of the country’s efforts to increase dependency on renewable energy to 15 percent of overall energy usage. While China is the leader of carbon emissions, the country’s per-capita emissions are lower than those of developed and developing nations, including the United States. The per-capita emissions in China were 7.7 tons per person in 2017 while the U.S. produced 15.7 tons per person.
2. United States
The United States added 5,107 Mt CO2 to the atmosphere in 2017, making it the second-biggest producer of carbon emissions. This represents a 0.4 percent increase compared to 1990 emission levels and accounts for 13.77 percent of total worldwide emissions. The transportation industry is one of the largest contributors to emissions in the States, producing 28.9 percent of emissions in 2017, with planes, trains, trucks, and ships burning significant amounts of fuel to transport goods and supplies. Consumer motor vehicles also add to the total, even with modern automobiles required to meet stricter CO2 emission standards. Over 90 percent of the fuel used for consumer transportation is petroleum-based. While the U.S. has made efforts to limit its dependence on coal, 27.5 percent of emissions come from electricity production, with 62.9 percent of electricity requiring the burning of fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas. Natural gas, however, emits close to half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal, making it a more sustainable energy source. While agriculture accounts for close to 20 percent of emissions in China, the U.S. agricultural industry is responsible for just 9 percent of emissions, including emissions from livestock and agricultural soils.
Carbon emissions in the U.S. declined by 12 percent from 2005 to 2017 – a rate of roughly one percent each year. The decrease from 2016 to 2017, however, was just half a percent. The decreases occurred due to a combination of factors, including less reliance on fossil fuels as well as milder weather. Analysts predict that U.S. emissions may decrease by 14 to 18 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. Most of this decrease may come from the replacement of coal with natural gas to limit the emissions in the transportation sector.
Collectively, the European Union is the third-largest carbon dioxide producer. However, most research focuses on the impact of each country’s emissions. When reviewing carbon emissions by country, India is the third-largest contributor. The country released 2,454 Mt CO2 in 2017, double the amount compared to 2005. A large source of this increase comes from coal burning to power the electrical grid, with India’s carbon emissions growing faster compared to all other major energy-consuming countries. However, the per capita emissions are still less than half of the worldwide average. Increasing its dependence on coal over the past three decades, India relied on coal for 68 percent of the country’s energy supply in 1992. In 2015, two-thirds of the country’s power came from coal. As India is home to many coal mines, it’s likely to continue its trend of increasing carbon emissions. Economically, coal-burning remains less expensive compared to importing oil or gas.
India originally announced plans to install solar power plants to produce 100 gigawatts of power by 2020. The country currently produces about 22 GW of solar power, and in 2019, the government set a new target of 70 GW by March 2023. India is also part of the Paris climate agreement, and as part of the agreement, has pledged to reduce its emissions by 30 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030.
Russia contributes almost five percent of global carbon emissions, producing 1,764 Mt CO2 in 2017. The country has reduced its contribution by 25.8 percent since 1990, however, when it produced 2,378 megatons. Due to the size of the region, Russia has the lowest rate of CO2 emissions per land area out of the top CO2 producing countries. Most of the carbon emissions in Russia come from natural gas and coal. Natural gas is the primary energy source for the country – with some of the biggest natural gas deposits in the world – while coal remains essential to industries such as chemical production. Meanwhile, about 80 percent of the country’s emissions come from fuel used for transport, and industrial processes account for over a tenth of emissions. Agriculture emits just six percent of total emissions, while waste accounts for less than five of the total. Russia benefits naturally from its millions of acres of forests that help curb carbon emissions in the country. The forests create carbon sinks, which store carbon-containing compounds, reducing total emissions. Analysts estimate that the carbon sinks in Russia reduce emissions by about one quarter – meaning without the vast forests, Russia could have much higher emission totals.
Russia formally ratified the October 2019 Paris climate agreement. However, many experts consider the agreement a symbolic gesture, as the Paris agreement target for Russia does not require the country to significantly reduce its emissions. Using the 1990 CO2 levels as its benchmark, Russia aims to reduce emissions by a third compared to 1990 levels, which would require less than a five percent decrease compared to its current levels. The Russian government, however, still continues to delay policies that would implement CO2 targets. The country has not dramatically increased its emission levels either, though, actually experiencing a gradual decline in emissions over the past three decades.
As the fifth-largest producer of CO2 emissions, Japan stands out for producing the most CO2 per land area compared to other major CO2-producing countries. Japan produces 3,494 tons of CO2 per square kilometer, compared to 1,133 tons in China and 519 tons in the United States. Despite these numbers, Japan has a history of supporting efforts to fight climate change. In 1997, the country hosted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which led to the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol was the earliest international treaty aimed at reducing carbon emissions. As part of the Paris agreement, Japan has pledged to reduce its emissions by 26 percent by 2030 compared to 2013 levels. In hopes to achieve this target, Japan is looking to the development of nuclear power plants and renewable energy.
Currently, Japan relies on coal and natural gas to generate electricity and power its industries. After the Fukushima nuclear reactor incident, the country relied more heavily on fossil fuels. But to reduce its emissions, Japan is working to reopen several nuclear power plants, as is one of several efforts announced by the Japanese government. The country also plans on reducing the amount of energy obtained from fossil fuels while increasing the use of renewable energy by 22 to 24 percent. In 2018, around 15 percent of the country’s energy came from renewable sources, such as solar power panels and wind turbines. Yet some analysts criticize Japan’s efforts to reduce emissions, believing that the country is not doing enough to limit its contribution to greenhouse gases. Based on current trends, Japan may not be leading global decarbonizing efforts, trailing behind other developed nations in Europe.
Germany is the sixth-largest producer of CO2 emissions, releasing 796 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The country has continued its trend, however, of reducing emissions. In 1990, Germany produced 1018 megatons, and in 2005, the country added 837 Mt of CO2 to the atmosphere. Yet it has reduced its emissions by over 20 percent in the past three decades. With ambitious targets set for cutting carbon emissions and total greenhouse gases, the country hopes to limit greenhouse emissions by 40 percent by 2020, 55 percent by 2030, and almost eliminate them by 2050. To reach this goal, the country needs to increase the consumption of renewable energy by more than half before 2050. In the past several years, Germany has started closing coal-fired power plants while investing in greener technologies. By 2030, the German government wants half of the current coal-fired plants closed. As with most of the countries discussed, the majority of Germany’s current emissions come from the use of fossil fuels for energy and industry. Based on statistics from 2014, the energy sector contributes over one-third of the country’s total emissions.
Germany’s emission targets are not part of the Paris climate agreement. The country set its target in 2007 and has continued to work toward cleaner energy. Committing millions of dollars to develop initiatives to reduce emissions in the coming years, Germany has taken its own steps forward to combat climate change, recently announcing $520 million in subsidies for the hydrogen energy sector. Germany hopes to phase out the use of natural gas to power its electrical grid, using the same pipelines to supply hydrogen throughout the country.
South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Canada are other major contributors to global carbon emissions, producing between 617 and 671 megatons of CO2 per year. As the seventh-largest producer, South Korea produces 673 megatons of CO2 – however, the international shipping industry independently surpasses this total, producing 677 megatons per year within the industry itself. Beyond the countries with the largest emission totals, the remaining developed and developing countries produce just 25 percent of global emissions. Compared to 1990 levels, dozens of countries, meanwhile, continue to increase the production of fossil fuels. The most significant increases have occurred in regions that experienced rapid industrialization in the last few decades, with Vietnam, Oman, and Malaysia as just a few examples. However, the top six CO2 producing countries contribute almost 60 percent of global CO2 emissions. For a major reduction in global CO2 levels to occur, the top contributors will need to decrease their dependence on fossil fuels.
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PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. (2019.) “Trends in Global CO2 and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.
EC. (2015). “Paris Agreement.” European Commission.