See the interactive map: Four Ways to Look at Carbon Footprints

Click the image above to see the interactive map: Four Ways to Look at Carbon Footprints

At climate change talks in Warsaw this week, just as in the previous 18 annual rounds of negotiations, delegates never were able to overcome the divide between rich and poor nations.

We map the starkly different views of the climate crisis that have led to stalemate in our newly revised interactive, Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footrpints.  (See related “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Climate Change Science.”)

Our map zeroes in on just a small number of nations–14–but they happen to be responsible for 80 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. The numbers come from the World Resources Institute’s excellent climate data navigator, CAIT 2.0, one of the few data sources that enables apples-to-apples comparisons of emissions from around the world.

Each of the four viewpoints in our map is accurate, as far as it goes. But each alone is inadequate. Like the legendary blind men surveying the elephant, nations that contemplate the massive global warming problem from only one vantage point will end up groping at a portion of the truth and griping at each other, missing the whole picture. (See related, “Q&A With Philippines Climate Envoy Who’s Fasting After Super Typhoon Haiyan.”)

For the United States and most other industrialized nations, the operative view is “Current Emissions,” and the alarming reality that China’s carbon output has grown more than 40 percent, and India’s, by 25 percent, since our last version of the map, based on 2005 data. (See related “Pictures: A Rare Look Inside China’s Energy Machine.”) Any treaty that is designed like the Kyoto accord, with binding carbon emissions cuts only for the richest countries, will fail to stem the rising threat of Asia’s rapidly mounting emissions.

The U.S. and Europe often point to the climate progress they’ve made by focusing on what we call “Intensity,” on our map, their relatively low greenhouse gas emissions per unit of economic output. Indeed, carbon intensity has fallen dramatically in wealthy nations over the past few decades. But no nation is an island, and these efficiency improvements are in part because energy-intensive manufacturing has moved to the developing world, often to make goods that are being shipped, bought and consumed in the developed world. And even if all nations were reducing their intensity, it would matter little if absolute emissions are rising at their current rate.

Developing nations frequently rebuff calls that they face binding emissions cuts, pointing to their low “Per Capita” emissions, compared to the giant footprint of the United States and other wealthy countries. Several years ago, India in particular made relatively low per capita emissions the cornerstone of its climate policy, but the trends here too are alarming. India’s per capita carbon emissions are up 12 percent since our previous map, China’s are up 40 percent and now nearly on par with those of Europe. The atmosphere will be overwhelmed if per capita emissions continue to grow at this rate in nations with large and growing populations, and yet these countries still face the very real and necessary challenge of extending electricity to millions of people living in poverty and without access to the grid. (See “Related: Five Surprising Facts About Energy Poverty.”)

But most of the debate in Warsaw has centered around the title on our map called “Cumulative Emissions.” When measured since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere by the United States and Europe far surpass those of any single developing nation. If, as the scientists now say, the world has a limited “carbon budget” and more than half of it already has been spent, developing nations point out that the United States and Europe have burned up more than their fair shares of fossil fuel on their paths to economic progress.

Cumulative emissions are about more than emissions, they are now about money. Wealthy nations have long promised to establish a fund to bolster the defenses of those at the greatest risk of sea level rise and extreme weather. Developing countries now want to see that funding plus an additional mechanism for the nations with the largest cumulative emissions to compensate the poorer, vulnerable nations for “loss and damage” due to climate events. They could point to one example playing out in real time, the tragedy unfolding in the Philippines after Super Typhoon Haiyan.

But cumulative emissions, too, are changing. Just prior to the Warsaw talks, the United Nations Environmental Program released its “emissions gap” report, showing how nations’ current commitments on climate change fall well short of what’s needed to curb the risk of catastrophic global warming. UNEP noted that until about the year 2000, it was clear that the wealthy nations’ historic emissions far outweighed those of the poor countries. Since then, emissions have grown so rapidly in the developing world since then that the balance has changed significantly. Now, developed nations and developing nations’ share roughly 50-50 responsibility for the atmosphere’s cumulative carbon load since 1850.

Recent research on cumulative emissions cited by the UN, by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency,  shows how tricky a single viewpoint of emissions can be. Some have suggested for example, discounting some past emissions to account for technological progress. The authors point out that the United Kingdom, for instance, had a long history of high emissions due to the use of inefficient steam engines. But nations developing today don’t need to repeat that history; they can employ much more advanced technologies and emit far less carbon for the same level of economic output.

Another way to look at cumulative emissions, the authors point out, is to grant each nation a “deduction,” so to speak, for “basic needs.” In this approach, nations would not be held responsible for the carbon emissions necessary to meet the basic needs of their people.

Discounting past emissions to account for technological progress would tend to lessen responsibility for wealthy nations, while deductions for “basic needs” would lessen the pressure on poorer and developing nations. But the recent research on cumulative emissions underscores the point of our interactive map, the importance of looking at the world’s climate crisis globally and from many different points of view, and not just from the poor frame of reference circumscribed by any one nation’s borders.


  1. Rick Bel
    December 12, 2013, 3:12 pm

    Jon Petrie, thanks. The first map you describe is exactly what I was thinking about except you described it perfectly. When I buy a product from the US or China, subtract the CO2 from the country of origin and add it to my country. That way the real consumer (not the manufacturer) of the goods identifies where the CO2 emissions should be assigned. However, I think we may want to make some allowances based on climate, e.g, people living in colder countries will need to burn additional fuel for heat.

  2. bmatkin
    December 10, 2013, 12:52 pm

    Why not show another map that shows natural Co2 emissions? You know the one that shows how much nature emits that dwarfs man made emissions by a factor of 45 gigatons compared to ..3-.7 GT of humans.
    Then will rising world Co2 output the temperature has remained flat for 17 years.
    The rate of ocean rise has not changed in hundreds of years, so the ocean is NOT absorbing the extra heat.
    Let’s get back to worrying about toxic particles and emissions and stop worrying about extra plant food in the atmosphere.
    It’s over, global warming hype is over, stick a fork in it, admit you were wrong and move on. It seems Mother Gaia emits Co2 at an enormous rate, tax her.

  3. Jon Petrie
    Vancouver Canada
    December 10, 2013, 1:52 am

    And why not a fifth and sixth map — maps that should in fact be the first and second map before the existing four – showing 1) national per capita emissions responsibility INCLUDING embodied CO2e in imports (less embodied emissions in exports) and including emissions from international flying by nationals 2) the per capita emissions of the wealthiest 10% of each nation — again counting embodied emissions and international flying. I suspect top 10% of Chinese and Americans have responsibility for 50% of consumption related emissions of their countries.

  4. CaiCS
    November 28, 2013, 4:43 am

    It’s a really big headache of this world. Why we always like to point out that who should take more responsibility on this issue. What we need is how and what we can do to reduce the affections. However, besides the discussions on discounting the emissions by utilizing the latest technologies, are developed nations really willing to share the latest technologies to the developing nations?

  5. Kabir Zaidi
    November 24, 2013, 3:04 pm

    US can substantially cut down on its cumulative emissions if it’s nearly 32 million singles are converted into 16 million happy couples because singles living alone would consume more energy between them than married people would.
    I strongly believe that marriage and environment are directly co-related to each other. A couple living together can easily cut down their impact on the grid and the environment because that means sharing the resources and utilities like air-conditioning / heating, driving, washing and cooking etc. Besides this, a happy and content family would always go out of their way to participate in any fundraiser or save the Earth campaign or any community based campaign.
    According to a study by the BBC (Jan. 9th, 2012) titled “Why is the US marriage rate falling sharply” – for the first time single Americans have outnumbered the married ones. Marriage is on a terminal decline in America, which sadly has the highest divorce rate in the world.
    And the buck really does not stop there. My study tells me that all incidents of violence and shootings that have taken place in the US, (including the one at Norway in 2011, which claimed 73 innocent lives) were committed by loners. It is very rare for a married man with kids to commit such a heinous crime. Loneliness along with depression and alcohol (drinking and drugs etc.) is a very lethal mix and is the lead cause of deviant behaviour.
    America must try to rehabilitate its singles because this state of estrangement is creating broken homes, which breed loneliness, frustration and ultimately crime. Their empty minds are like breeding grounds for insane and violent thoughts. The late Mr. Steve Jobs and child prodigy Justin Bieber although exceptions, are both from broken homes but thankfully, they were not deprived of female companionship – as in the case of Adam Lanza, James Holmes and the like.
    Marriage it seems has lost its charm, which is why young people are not getting married and raising families. On the contrary US President Mr. Barack Obama (June 14th 2013) considers his being a father as the best job in the world.
    According to a Pew Research (Feb. 22, 2013) projection by 2050 US may have a President of Asian origin because by then an estimated 37% of US population would be immigrants. This is mainly because the young Americans are not marrying and raising families like the Asian immigrants. The same problem is with Japan, Germany, UK and Sweden etc. While the growth rate in UK just picked up in 2013, thanks to Prince George – both Germany and Japan are having growth rates as that of 1960s.
    It is pertinent to point out that Indian kids have won the last 11 Annual Spelling Bee contests in US – consecutively, year after year. Indians who constitute only 1% of the US population have today proudly proved their prowess through these lucky kids. I feel that the success of Indian kids has more to do with the Indian way of upbringing – meaning a good loving nuclear family with strong traditional values.
    The need of the hour is to devise new ways to accentuate participation of the people so as to help them change their attitudes and behaviours built over the years.