Carbon Dioxide – An Emission Story

Humanity faced two world wars in the 20th century. Our war in the 21st century is going to be much different. It will be against climate change. The battle has already begun. Climate change has already claimed 1.3 million lives and damaged the economy for $3 trillion in the last 25 years. If humanity wants to win this war, we need to start acting now. However, the first step to any war scenario is first understanding the enemy. So, in this blog, we will explore a data story on the biggest culprit of climate change, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.   

As of 2020, CO2 levels in the atmosphere are at 416 parts per million (ppm). The last time the earth had this much CO2 was 3 million years ago, and sea levels were 15-25 meters higher! If we are to reduce the amount of CO2 we emit into the atmosphere we need to first understand where it is coming from. In this data story, we will try to answer this question. 

Important to note, all data used in this data story has been taken from Our World In Data. 

Read: It is Always Sunny – Is Climate Change Bad?

A Data Story in Carbon Dioxide Emissions  

People commonly believe that developing countries are one of the largest emitters of CO2 in the world. So, let us see if this holds true. First, let us take the data of annual CO2 emissions.   

Annual Carbon Dioxide Emissions

We can see the top 8 countries with the highest annual CO2 emissions. China leads with 9.8 billion tonnes, followed by the United States with 5.3 billion tonnes and the European continent with 3.5 billion tonnes. Only 3 countries are developing, the rest are developed. In the top 8, developed produce 12.5 tonnes of CO2 and developing producing 13 tonnes of CO2. Developed and developing are neck and neck when it comes to annual CO2 emissions, at least in the top 8.   

However, an anomaly in this data is China. It emits a lot of CO2, almost twice as much as the US. This may be attributed to two reasons. One reason is that China has the largest population in the world. However, this does not explain why India with the second largest population in the world emits much less CO2 lesser than that of China (7.3 billion tonnes lesser). This brings us to the 2nd reason; most of the world’s production has been outsourced to China due to its cheap labor and infrastructure.  

Historical CO2 emissions 

Now that we know developed and developing are very close when it comes to annual CO2 emissions, what about historical cumulative CO2 emissions? 

Cumulative Carbon Dioxide Emissions

When we look at cumulative CO2 emissions, it is very clear that the 3 biggest players are the USA (388 billion tonnes), the European continent (321 billion tonnes) and China (200 billion tonnes). When you compare developed and developing countries share in cumulative CO2 emissions among the top 8 emitters, the developed country takes the pie with a 78% share of CO2 emissions. The high historical CO2 emission among the developed countries is attributed to the Industrial Revolution. The developed countries were rampant with their industrialization during the 19th and 20th centuries, which exploited a lot of the world’s resources for profit.

Watch: Ranking the Top 5 Sustainable Countries 

Per Capita CO2 Emissions 

The final data points we will look at is per capita CO2 emissions. Per capita emission is the calculation of per person CO2 emission in a country. This is done by taking the total CO2 emission of a country and dividing it by its population. 

Per Capita Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Here we see two very interesting points. First, India has one of the lowest CO2 emissions per capita in the whole world. For a country that is rapidly developing and has the second largest population in the world, that is very impressive. We will need a whole other data story or blog to understand why that is the case. Second, the US has an unusually high per capita CO2 emission for a developed country. This could be attributed to the fact that the US has a high consuming population. Even if you compare developed and developing in the top 8, developed countries (47 tons per capita CO2 emissions) tend to have a much higher per capita CO2 emission than developing countries. (16 tons per capita CO2 emissions).    

Conclusion to the CO2 Data Story 

Looking at the data, it is evident that developing countries are not the biggest emitters of CO2 emissions when you compare the 3 forms of CO2 emissions – annual emissions, cumulative emissions, and per capita emissions. True, China is among the highest when it comes to annual and cumulative emissions. However, when you take into the fact that they have the highest population in the world and one of the lower per capita emissions, you can start to understand why. However, when you see developed countries like the USA be ranked top 2 in all the CO2 emission statistics we have explored, it is a bit disheartening. This is even more worrying when you consider the fact that the Trump Administration is looking to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement.   

This data story is not to criticize any country or point fingers. It is shown that CO2 emissions are not a global south problem, it is also very much a global north problem. However, if we are going to win the war against climate change, we all need to work together. In a time when we need to be united, let us not stand against each other. The SDG goal 13: Climate Action, our planet, and our future generation are depending on us to solve this problem. 

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