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Global warming is the chief issue facing humanity. A continuous rise in global temperatures has the potential to devastate the planet. We are already witnessing major climatic changes, but these are only likely to become more extreme and unpredictable as time passes.

While changes in global temperature have occurred naturally throughout the history of the planet, it is clear that the changes we are witnessing are caused by human activity. Historical data shows that this began with the British Industrial Revolution, where greenhouse gases were first emitted in large quantities.

Since that time, countries have continued to spew out greenhouse gases which cause the rise in global temperatures. Many countries are taking steps to reduce their emissions in an effort to protect the planet. Other nations could be doing more. Below, we examine what global warming is and the major contributors to this damaging process.

What Causes Global Warming?

Global warming is the term used to describe the rise in average temperatures across the planet. This is closely associated with climate change, which encompasses changes in temperature, extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and various other environmental impacts. These terms, though related, are distinct from one another.

But what causes global warming? This process occurs when greenhouse gases – CO2 and many other pollutants – are released into the atmosphere. They collect in the upper atmosphere, absorbing sunlight and solar radiation that has bounced off the Earth. Without these gases, solar radiation would escape into space. Since it is trapped, it heats the planet.

Human activity is responsible for the release of these greenhouse gases. Burning fossil fuels for electricity, using cars and planes, agricultural activities – these all contribute to emissions. Reducing emissions is a major challenge, but pioneering science and the rise of renewable energy have offered reason for optimism.

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Who Are the Biggest Greenhouse Gas Emitters?

Below, you’ll find the relatively small group of countries that are responsible for the majority of emissions. Here’s how they rank (based on 2019 data).

1. China (9,877 million metric tonnes, 7.1 tonnes per capita)

China is the most populous nation on the planet. As such it is no surprise that they find themselves as the chief emitter of greenhouse gases. In fact, China produces nearly 30% of all emissions.

Initially, China had been reluctant to set targets for emissions, though that has changed in recent years. In 2020, China committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2060. The country also expects its emissions ‘peak’ to happen before 2030.

2. United States (4,744 million metric tonnes, 14.4 tonnes per capita)

The second biggest contributor of greenhouse gases is the United States. Yet, this global superpower is also one of the leaders in the reduction of global emissions.

Between 2005 and 2017, net emissions dropped by 12%. The rapid uptake of renewable energy solutions saw electric power sector emissions drop by 27% in this period. Positive results continue to roll in. In 2021, the US set a target of achieving a 50-52% reduction in emissions from 2005 levels, building on the strong progress the country has already made.

3. India (2,310 million metric tonnes, 1.7 tonnes per capita)

Like China, India has an enormous population. With more than 1.4 billion people, India is the second-most populous country on the planet. Accordingly, they are also one of the biggest contributors to global emissions.

India’s emissions have continued to grow over the past decade and the country has only committed to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2070. That is a significantly later deadline than many other countries. In general, India has resisted setting overall reduction targets.

4. Russia (1,640 million metric tonnes, 11.4 tonnes per capita)

Russia comes in at number 4, with more than 1,600 million metric tonnes of emissions in 2019. This nation also has one of the higher emissions per capita rates compared with European nations – Russia’s rate of 11.4 per capita contrasts significantly with the UK (4.6), France (3.8), and Ukraine (3.7).

The vast majority of Russian emissions are a result of the energy industry, coming close to 80%. With Russia’s economy reliant on the use of fossil fuels, it seems likely that a reduction in emissions is far from imminent.

5. Japan (1,056 million metric tonnes, 8.4 tonnes per capita)

Japan is the last nation that emits more than 1,000 megatons of greenhouse gases annually. Another country with a large population, Japan has set numerous climate change targets, though these have been criticised for being unambitious.

Unfortunately, Japan is the only G7 nation that is still building new coal-fired power plants for energy production. Considering the well-documented damage that this fossil fuel causes to the planet, it is fair to question Japan’s commitment to emissions reductions.

6. Germany (644 million metric tonnes, 7.8 tonnes per capita)

A highly industrialised nation, Germany is the sixth-largest contributor to global emissions. Still, Germany has managed to reduce its emissions by over 35% since 1990. This is a fine achievement. It’s something they’ve managed to accomplish through the expansion of renewable energy (solar and wind, primarily).

Germany is aiming to cut its emissions by 55% by 2030 and have the country run on 80% renewable energy sources by 2050. Examining Germany’s historical commitment to emissions reductions, there is plenty of reason to feel confident they will achieve these goals.

7. South Korea (585 million metric tonnes, 11.3 tonnes per capita)

In 2018, South Korea emitted a record quantity of greenhouse gases (605 million metric tonnes). It is therefore pleasing to report that in 2019, they managed to reduce this number through a commitment to its green energy platform.

Emissions from coal, steel, and electricity production have continued to increase, so challenges remain. Nevertheless, South Korea has started to decommission old and inefficient coal plants in an effort to transition to more efficient, effective methods.

8. Iran (583 million metric tonnes, 7.0 tonnes per capita)

Iran is the planet’s eighth-largest emitter of greenhouse gas emission. When you consider that between 1990 and 2018, Iran’s CO2 emissions grew by approximately 5% annually, this does not come as a surprise.

While Iran has committed to reducing emissions by 4% by 2030, there is a clear reluctance to dedicate resources to this cause when the country is being affected by sanctions. As such, no substantial movement is expected in this space soon.

9. Indonesia (583 million metric tonnes, 2.2 tonnes per capita)

Indonesia is the fourth most populous country on the planet, with nearly 280,000,000 people, making it also one of the biggest CO2 emitters.

So far, Indonesia has not explicitly stated a target for net-zero emissions, but their existing climate action plans would be compatible with net-zero emissions by 2060. Despite this, coal capacity is expected to increase until at least 2027, representing over 60% of the country’s electricity generation by the end of the decade.

10. Canada (571 million metric tonnes, 15.2 tonnes per capita)

Canada is among the highest emitters of greenhouse gases. This is in spite of the fact that Canada has numerous hydroelectric dams and nuclear power facilities – neither of which rely on fossil fuels.

Despite recent policy developments and new targets, Canada must do more to overhaul its incumbent frameworks. The country’s 2021 budget suggests that Canada will continue to struggle with the implementation of emissions reduction policies.

 

Sources:

US Environmental Protection Agency – US Greenhouse Gas Emissions 1990-2020

US Environmental Protection Agency – Overview of Greenhouse Gases

World Bank – Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Union of Concerned Scientists – Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions

Climate Watch – Historical GHG Emissions

International Energy Agency – Countries and Regions

 

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Reducing Global Emissions

The ten largest greenhouse gas emitting nations contribute well over 50% of total emissions.

While it is clear most of these nations are taking real steps toward emissions reductions, it’s equally apparent that they must do more. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels and expanding renewable energy programmes will go some distance to achieving these goals.