Who is to blame for soaring levels of carbon dioxide?

By John Parnell

Who is the most responsible for the world hurtling beyond 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere?

For many it is straightforward. The USA is out on its own in terms of historical CO2 emissions.

Data from the US Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) puts the country’s emissions from burning fossil fuels at 95.4 billion metric tonnes of CO2.

That’s around the same as the next three combined, Russia, China and Japan.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which this week is hosting negotiations on a global deal to reduce emissions, acknowledged the responsibility developed countries have for this situation in its original text.

“The largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries,” it reads.

But given the gravity of the situation, clearly this doesn’t mean that the US is the only country that can do something about it.

The contribution of India and China (9.7bn and 33.9bn metric tonnes respectively) is about the same as Germany and the UK (22.7bn and 20.1bn). In comparison, Senegal is on 39 million.


Allocating blame is not the same as sharing responsibility. Different data sets based on past emissions, future growth, emissions per head of population and human development indexes can do either.

As governments meet to discuss the shape of a global emissions reduction deal that applies to rich and poor, figuring out who is to blame and for what, will inform how much action is expected of them in any new agreement.

The rules that the negotiations adhere to also stress that action must reflect the “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” of each nation, referred to as CBDR and RC.

Talking purely in terms of responsibility for present-day emissions, China has the most to answer for. It also has the most potential to avoid future emissions. If that is the goal of the UNFCCC, then you could argue China has more responsibility than anyone else.

Developing nations must cut the growth of their emissions but rich nations must help them ensure that can happen in a way that does not derail development (Source: UN)

It’s not always that simple. JM Mauskar, special secretary with the Indian Ministry of Environment told the 2011 UN summit in Durban: “India is not a major emitter. It just happens to be a very large country”.

Is a government’s responsibility proportional to its population? Mauskar’s point was that the country’s low emissions per head of population, means it is a low emitter. Yet in absolute terms that is not the case.

Mauskar and other members of the Group of 77 developing countries (G77) argue that emissions per head of population are a more accurate figure.

Not surprisingly Qatar, the world’s highest emitter based on this metric (largely due to gas flaring) says the figures are totally misleading.

“We should not concentrate on the per capita [emissions]. We should concentrate on the total amount from each country,” Deputy PM Abdullah bin Hamad Al Attiyah said at the start of the 2012 climate summit. He was hard to ignore – given he was chairing the conference.

And yet the atmosphere doesn’t discriminate against the source of CO2. And the more you fiddle with the numbers the more misleading they can be.

India’s emissions divided by its population are tiny. But preliminary estimates for 2011’s total emissions published by CDIAC show its greenhouse gas output rose 7.47% from 2010 and are now more than four times those of the UK. And rising. Fast.

Rich responsibilities

Poor countries argue that the concept of ‘differentiated responsibility’ is important to ensure they are not lumbered with legislation that hinders their development.

But it’s vital that technology and knowledge is shared across the world to demonstrate that progress does not necessarily mean dozens of coal power stations belching fumes into the sky.

And it’s important to recognise what has been achieved by development and science – repeating mistakes made by previous governments or countries is not an excuse.

Emissions in the developed world up until 1950 underwrote the development of modern medicine, skyscrapers and air travel. Perhaps there is a cut off point beyond which development turns into conspicuous consumption. Should only emissions beyond that level be targeted?

In Doha UK Climate change minister Greg Barker argued emissions post 1992 were vital – after the world had admitted it has a problem.

“I think it’s one thing to emit unknowingly, it’s quite another to emit when you know the damage is being done by the actions you are undertaking,” he said.

This is selective history, as scientists had a fairly clear idea of the greenhouse gas effect 100 years ago.

What rich nations can do is use their resources to curb their own excesses and ensure that their mistakes are not repeated.

To do that they will need to supply support, not just finance, but logistical and technical expertise to ensure that developing nations continue to do just that, without driving the whole world toward excessive levels of warming.

The UN climate talks look set to be dominated in the near future by discussions over how to distribute responsibility.

Instead of looking at how to manipulate statistics, governments should simply look at the maximum number of emissions they can avoid without lowering basic standards of living. Those that have already walked the path should be at hand with the resources to allow others to follow.

Big eight historical fossil fuel emitters

USA 95.4bn metric tonnes
Russia (USSR) 38.9bn
China 33.9bn
Japan 24.4bn
Germany 22.7bn
UK 20.1bn
India 9.7bn
France 9.4bn

Data from CDIAC, up to 2009, start dates vary

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