China, the US, and India are currently the world’s biggest annual producers of greenhouse gas emissions. However, if we take a look at all historical carbon emissions dating back to the dawn of the industrial age, a slightly different picture emerges.
An extensive new analysis by Carbon Brief has worked out the world’s biggest historical carbon gas emitters from 1850-2021, updating a previous round-up published in 2019. Unlike previous years, this fresh analysis also includes carbon emissions from land use and forestry, as well as those from fossil fuels. It does not, however, include non-carbon emissions such as methane since they are comparatively short-lived and do not persist in the atmosphere to the same extent.
As per their work, the biggest historical carbon gas emitters from 1850-2021 by country, in descending order, are:
- The USA
You may be wondering, why does this matter? Well, while some countries are currently pumping out significant quantities of carbon emissions, other countries have been in the business of fossil fuels, mass manufacturing, and heavy industry for a considerably longer timeframe than others and, therefore, have been pushing the climate crisis for longer.
Take the UK, for example. This was one of the first countries to industrialize on planet Earth. Fueled by iron and coal, it rose to become the most prominent industrial power in the world economy through the first half of the 19th century. While it’s currently the world’s 17th biggest carbon emitter, as per some estimates, the cumulation of these emissions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries means it's the 8th biggest historical emitter.
For comparison, China is currently the biggest carbon emitter on the planet by a wide margin, releasing about as much carbon as the three next biggest emitters (the US, India, and Russia) combined. However, China was a largely agrarian society until the post-war era and only industrialized to a significant scale from the 1950s. Due to this, it slips down a place to become the 2nd biggest historical emitter.
These are just two simple examples, but many of these complex issues have to be taken into account when the world works out carbon budgets, the total amount of carbon that can be “taken out of the ground” and emitted to stay below a given limit on global temperature rises. According to the Carbon Brief report, the world has collectively used 86 percent of the carbon budget that would give us a 50 percent chance of staying below a 1.5°C (2.7°F) rise in global temperature.
Their analysis suggests that many of the biggest historical emitters have already burned through their “fair share of the pie” to fuel their nation’s own development and, as many argue, should bear more of the responsibility to address the deepening climate crisis.