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26 October 2021

The US still produces far higher per capita carbon emissions than China

China is only the biggest polluter if population size is not taken into account.

By Nick Ferris

With Cop26 just a few days away, news sites and social feeds are awash with climate takes, pledges and data interpretations. 

A popular chart doing the rounds in certain corners of Twitter at the moment shows per capita emissions growth, with India and China up nearly 200 per cent and 300 per cent respectively since 1990, while major Western countries have seen per capita emissions decline. 

But what this chart really offers is a lesson on how not to represent data, rather than any revelation as to the true state of climate action. This is because the emissions growth recorded in China and India suggests that citizens of these countries are now the biggest contributors to climate change. In reality, however, even after the dramatic growth recorded over the past three decades, per capita emissions remain higher in both Europe (7.3 MtCO2) and the US (16.1 MtCO2) than China (7.1 MtCO2) and India (1.9 MtCO2). 

What’s more, while industrialisation has closed the emissions gap between the developing and the developed economies, the fact remains that Europe and the US have always had higher per capita emissions. Their historic contributions to climate change vastly outweigh those of China and India, even if China and India do eventually overtake them. 

Another way of looking at this historic performance through the notion of “fair shares” - or, how much should countries reduce emissions given their historic contributions to climate change? 

In the case of the US, Joe Biden’s current target is to reduce emissions by 50-52 per cent by 2030 relative to 2005 levels. But a recent analysis by 175 climate organisations suggested that a “fair share” for the US would see emissions decline 195 per cent by 2030. This would see domestic emissions reduced by 70 per cent and significant emissions reductions paid for in other countries around the world.