John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A select few countries have been responsible for the majority of the world's CO2 emissions since the '70s.
Scientists predicted long ago that CO2 emissions would pervert the atmosphere. Now, in a decade with sea levels rising at twice the rate of the 20th century average – and 10 of the warmest years on record landing in the past 12 years – how has humankind responded to the threat?
Not well, generally speaking. Emissions of CO2 have ticked up by 105 percent since the early 1970s, or about 2 percent a year, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international coalition of 34 countries. And the levels of this potent greenhouse gas are only expected to rise in the coming years, hitting a nearly 40 percent increase by 2030, predicts the OECD.
But while emissions are a global problem, the blame for producing them is not. A few countries have been disproportionately responsible for clouding the air with climate-bending gases. And though they may have cleaned up their act in recent years, significant damage has already been done.
To know the biggest CO2 spewers in recent history, have a look at these animated maps from the Paris-based data designer "JeremY Boy." (I assume that capitalized Y is somehow important.) They show the countries responsible for the bulk of emissions since 1971, with pulsating, foul-looking clouds each representing 300 million tonnes of C02. Note that some countries are left blank due to missing or incomplete information (certain governments don't accurately track bunker fuels, for instance), and that the data refers only to emissions from burning fossil fuels, not smaller sources like incinerating waste materials.
Here's the global-emissions breakdown for 1971, a time in which the United States was the planet's largest emitter (second place was taken by Germany). "In 1971, the world emitted 14095 million tonnes of CO2 due to fuel combustion alone," writes the map's creator. "The countries shown here were responsible for the emission of 10660 million tones, i.e., for 76% of the world-wide total."
And this map shows the situation in 2007, when surging industry in nations like China and India made them major players in the climate-change process. Europe continued to be a major emissions factory at 13 percent of the global total. "As a result of the rise of newly industrialized countries and the incapability of the Western world to reduce its CO2 emissions, in 2007 the world-wide total had doubled," says JeremY Boy. "28962 million tonnes of CO2 were emitted that year due to fuel combustion. The countries shown here were responsible for 80% of the world-wide total."
For those who like their information in non-moving form, the designer made this graph showing country-specific totals over the decades. China recently usurped the United States as World Emperor of Emissions, and Russia's CO2 levels have stabilized after experiencing a giant leap after the Soviet Union dissolved (more countries are shown in the interactive version):