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Who Is Responsible for Climate Change?
By Lee Woo-Seong Reporter Senior of Mechanical engineering
Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have released over 1.5 trillion tons of carbon dioxide (CO₂) into the atmosphere and the emissions keep rising. However, emissions need to get down to zero. In recent years, the consequences of this level of pollution have become more serious and visible. Every year, horrible records are broken. We've had more heat waves, more glaciers melting, and the lowest amount of ice ever recorded at the North Pole. The only way to limit this rapid climate change is to decrease our collective emissions quickly. Although all countries agree on this goal, they have not agreed to be responsible or to bear the heaviest loads. The developed countries point at their own efforts to reduce emissions and the fact that large developing countries are on the rise. For example, China is currently releasing much more CO₂ than in years past. On the other hand, developing countries argue that emissions by the West are lifestyle emissions, while for developing countries, they are survival emissions. Others call rich countries hypocrites that got rich by polluting the earth without any restraint and now expect others not to industrialize and therefore stay poor. So, who is responsible for climate change and CO₂ emissions?
Which countries emit the most carbon dioxide today?
In 2017, humans emitted about 36 billion tons of CO₂. More than 50% came from Asia. North America and Europe followed with 18% and 17%. While Africa, South America, and Oceania together only contributed eight percent. China is by far the world's largest emitter with 10 billion tons of CO₂ every year, or 27% of global emissions. It is followed by the USA with 15% and the European Union with around 10%. Together, this is more than half of the world's CO₂ emissions. So it is clear that without the willingness and action of these three industrial blocs, humanity will not be able to become carbon neutral and prevent severe climate change. Next on the list is India at seven percent, Russia at five percent, Japan at three percent, and Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Canada all just short of two percent. The top 10 countries are responsible for 75% of global emissions. But, if we only look at the current situation, we are not getting the full picture.
Which countries have emitted the most in total?
If we look at emissions throughout history until today, the outlook changes drastically. The US and the EU both knock China off the top spot. The US is responsible for 25% of the world's historical emissions having emitted 400 billion tons, mostly in the 20th century. In second place is the EU at 22 percent. China comes in third at just under 13 percent, around half of the USA's contribution. India's contribution shrinks to 3 percent along with the whole of Africa and South America. The UK is responsible for one percent of annual global emissions but takes five percent of the historical responsibility. Germany, producing two percent of emissions per year today, has contributed almost six percent, as much as the whole of Africa and South America combined. So the narrative that rapid climate change is really the responsibility of the developing world is hard to defend if facts matter to you.
So who should take the responsibility?
Many of today's richest countries are in a convenient position. They have become rich over centuries of fossil fuel burning and industrial production. They have a large historical footprint, and their wealth means they still emit a lot per person. But, their countries’ annual emissions are now dwarfed by other countries, because the giant that is China is finally catching up, and other giants like India are on their way. Many Germans, for example, wonder how if Germany only accounts for two percent of yearly emissions, it can have a meaningful impact on reducing emissions. The answer is simple. For one, the richest countries have the resources, highly educated workforces, and technology to develop low-cost, low-carbon solutions and spread them around the world. If we don't want poorer countries to become as fossil fuel-dependent as we are, we need low-carbon technology to be cheap and available. If the rich countries of the West finally decide to try to make a major effort to slow rapid climate change, the rest of the world would follow, because it would have no choice. China is the largest CO₂ emitter today, and it's China's responsibility to grow in a way that will make it possible to transition to a zero-carbon world, in time. Others acting irresponsibly yesterday is a horrible excuse for repeating the same mistakes today. Climate change is a global problem, and no country can fix it alone. Working out who's responsible is not as simple as it seems, and in a way, it's a daft question, but one that has plagued international politics for decades. In the end, it's pretty simple. Each person can follow these easy steps to reduce their carbon footprint--recycle, take public transport.