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Earth's CO₂

An IEA report sheds light on the countries that contribute most to global carbon dioxide emissions.

by Luca Longo
04 November 2020
5 min read
by Luca Longo
04 November 2020
5 min read

Some say the West, above all the United States and Europe, is the main culprit behind the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Others say we should look at India, China and the rest of the Far East if we want to see who is emitting the most carbon and at the highest rate of increase. So, who’s right? In a way, they both are. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest report clears things up a little. Since 1974 this international organisation has been studying how energy is produced, distributed and used around the world.

In 2019, the report says, global emissions settled at 33 billion metric tonnes (Gt) of CO2 – in line with the previous year's results – and between 2016 and 2017 they grew from 32.2 Gt to 32.7 Gt. If you look at the data you’ll see that in the last 50 years America and Europe have emitted the most CO2 and produced the most hydrocarbons.

The record of emissions

But today China belches out 9,481 Gt of carbon dioxide a year, almost double that emitted by the US (4,888 Gt). When you look at per capita production, though, bearing in mind that there are four times as many people in China as in America, the figures show that Americans as individuals are responsible for more than twice as many emissions as Chinese people as individuals. Then, if you add up the per capita emissions from the last 50 years, you’ll see that the US is winning (or losing) 10 to one, with 1200 metric tonnes to China’s 120 metric tonnes.

This figure takes on even more significance when you think that it takes into account the 30-year economic boom that’s been going on in China since the 1990s. The Chinese and the Americans may be battling it out for first place among the world’s industrial powers, but China is only in 17th place for historic per capita emissions. The US is top in that unedifying ranking, which is obviously based on consumption.

The world’s two biggest producers have both seen their emissions go up in the last couple of years, but in different ways. On the one hand, emissions from China, which still has great potential for development when it comes to urbanisation, quality of life and industrialisation, have gone up by 2.5%. On the other, emissions from the US, which is already highly urbanised and industrialised, have gone up by over 3.1%.

India, the second country in the American media’s sights, is undoubtedly the most polluted nation in the world. It’s also responsible for the largest increase in carbon dioxide emissions in the last two years, at 4.8%, compared to a world average of 1.7%. Furthermore, Delhi alone gives off 7% of all the world’s emissions. Over the past 50 years, it has thrown up an average of 40 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita per year, compared to 1,200 in the US.

Virtuous Europe

And what about Europe? Over the same period, Europe brought its emissions down by 1.3%, and according to the Global Carbon Project’s latest report it’s responsible for 2.9 Gt of CO2, or 9.6% of global emissions, which is down sharply from the 3.5 Gt in 2017 and 3.1 Gt in 2018. Moving from fossil fuels to renewables

and from coal to natural gas led on their own to a decrease of 0.12 Gt out of the total decrease of 0.16 Gt since the previous year. In fact, in 2019, electricity from coal-fired thermal power stations fell by 25% in the then 28 EU countries (including Britain), while gas-fired power stations increased by 15%, overtaking coal-fired power.

A global issue

In the world ranking for the biggest per capita carbon dioxide emitters in the last 50 years, the US comes top, followed by Canada, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Holland, Britain, Finland, Norway, Japan, Sweden, Israel, France and Italy. Italy is therefore 13th, just ahead of Switzerland and Spain. Its per capita emissions over the last 50 years are 350 metric tonnes. That’s just over a quarter of the US’s total. In conclusion, while developing countries like India, Thailand, Indonesia and most of all China are seeing their emissions rise in tandem with their industry, urbanisation, wealth and well-being, it must also be said that North America and Europe, although they have limited their CO2 in recent years, have played a massive part in releasing carbon dioxide into our atmosphere since 1969.

So, there are no guilty or innocent nations. If we are to reduce emissions, we need a global effort, beginning in more advanced countries, to eliminate our enormous waste and replace the more polluting technologies with ones that may be more expensive but are less damaging to the environment. At the same time, quickly developing nations will have to take charge of their own evolution and avoid going down roads that have already proved unsustainable. On this global stage, projects to capture, store and reuse carbon dioxide will have a leading role. And Eni research is playing its part.

The author: Luca Longo

Industrial chemist specialized in theoretical chemistry. He was a researcher for 30 years before moving on to Eni's scientific communication.