Which countries are historically responsible for climate change?

The US remains in first position for its cumulative CO2 emissions throughout the timeseries, as its development continued first with widespread use of coal, then with the advent of the motor car. By the end of 2021, the US will have emitted more than 509GtCO2 since 1850. At 20.3% of the global total, this is by far the largest share and is associated with some 0.2C of warming to date.

In second place is China, with 11.4% of cumulative CO2 emissions to date and around 0.1C of warming. While China has had high land-related emissions throughout, its rapid, coal-fired economic boom since 2000 is the main cause of its current position. China’s CO2 output has more than tripled since 2000, overtaking the US to become the world’s largest annual emitter, responsible for around a quarter of the current yearly total.

Russia is third, with some 6.9% of global cumulative CO2 emissions, followed by Brazil (4.5%) and Indonesia (4.1%). Notably, the chart above shows how the latter pair are in the top 10 largely as a result of their emissions from deforestation, despite relatively low totals from the use of fossil fuels.

Germany, in sixth place with 3.5% of cumulative emissions thanks to its coal-reliant energy industry, illustrates how some countries’ land sectors have become cumulative CO2 sinks rather than sources, as trees have returned to previously deforested areas.

India is in seventh place in the rankings, with 3.4% of the cumulative total – just above the UK, on 3.0% – as a result of a higher contribution from land-use change and forestry.

Japan on 2.7% and Canada, with 2.6%, close out the top 10 largest contributors to historical emissions. International transport emissions from aviation and shipping, which are almost always excluded from national inventories and targets, would rank 11th in the list, if viewed as a “nation”.

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