Top CO2 polluters and highest per capita

The biggest absolute emissions come from China and the United States. In terms of CO2 emissions per capita, China is ranked only ranked 47th, at 7.5 metric tonnes per capita. The US is ranked 11th at 16.5 per capita and amongst countries with sizeable populations, has the highest CO2 emissions per capita. India is the third highest country in terms of absolute emissions, but only 158th in terms of per capita output with 1.7 metric tonnes per capita.

Selected countries CO2 emissions per capita

co2-emissions-per-capitaSource: World Bank

What explains variation in CO2 emissions per capita?

  • Levels of GDP. Countries with higher real incomes can afford to use more petrol and industrial production which causes pollution. By comparison, the lowest income countries have very limited industrial production and consumption of oil. However, that is only one factor, for example, the Netherlands has double CO2 emissions than France with similar GDP per capita.
  • Focus of the economy. Economies based on oil  (like Qatar, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates) have the highest levels of CO2 per capita. Qatar has a rate of 45.4 (off the chart) – small population but production based on oil exploration and oil refining.
  • Transport policy. Levels of petrol tax and balance of transport modes can influence CO2 emissions. Countries with highest levels of car use lead to more CO2 emissions. (See: relative petrol prices around the world, e.g. compare US with western Europe)
  • Policies to reduce CO2 emissions. To meet global warming targets countries have adopted policies, such as carbon tax and regulation to reduce pollution.
  • Modes of Power generation. The burning of fossil fuels (e.g. coal-powered electricity stations) is one of biggest causes of CO2 emissions. Countries which gain energy from renewables have lower CO2 emissions per capita.

Changes in CO2 emissions per capita


China’s CO2 emissions per capita have more than tripled in past 15 years.


Highest Total CO2 emissions by country (kT)

The total level of CO2 emission by kilo Tonne.

2United States5,254,279
8Saudi Arabia601,046
9Korea, Rep.587,156
12South Africa489,771
15United Kingdom419,820


Source: World Bank

Lowest CO2 emissions per Capita

By comparison, some of the poorest countries produce practically zero CO2 emissions per capital

Central African Republic0.061
Congo, Dem. Rep.0.049


Readers Question: Why don’t countries use the carbon tax?

  • Taxes are generally politically unpopular. A tax on carbon emissions will affect the living costs of many people. This can make the government reluctant to impose the tax.
  • There is also the free rider problem. A small country may think – what is the point in introducing carbon tax when their CO2 emissions are dwarfed by other countries like China and the US? Especially, when these bigger countries don’t seem inclined to do too much about the issue.
  • There are also differing opinions about the potential cost of CO2 emissions to the environment. In the US, there is a strong lobby which argues global warming is not scientifically proven. Therefore, there is a resistance to impeded CO2 emissions.
  • Another factor is that there are significant vested interests in the oil industry / other industries which pollute. They fear CO2 tax will reduce their profitability so they are willing to fight against moves to introduce taxes.
  • Another argument used is that a Carbon tax will harm jobs.


20 thoughts on “Top CO2 polluters and highest per capita”

  1. Lowest CO2 per person is not a crieteria, more populous country will have the least value. Total emissions must be a guide. However thermal power plants and number of vehicles and Air- traffice in a country must be correlating parameters. Further Natural emissions for an acre in wet lands must be eliminated from imposing penalities on a country for excess carbon production

    • 11 guys are stuck in an elevator. One of them farts every minute. Each of the others farts only once every ten minutes. The smell is awful. The guy who farts every minute says, “if the rest of you just stopped farting every ten minutes, we would halve the problem”. He is right, too. But he is also wrong.

    • Weighted values would be good but the weighting would be very complex. Arable land, population, GDP, Standard of Living… There is more to this question than per capita CO2. Every emeging nation will want what others have. The real quesion here is how can we (the world) make it equitable and fair for all.

  2. “Total emissions must be a guide” No sir. Total emission is directly proportional to numbers of active persons per country. Look at it this way, 24 litres of clean water per person per day, how much would you require for 10 people per day? Therefore emission per capita is still the correct and acceptable metrics to judge emission.

      • No it is not at all misleading. What would also be useful is how to account for extraction and export. Should the extracting country be shown as the polluter or should the importing and consumption country be the polluter? Or should there be a way to apportion carbon emissions?

    • Please read the entire article. It shows, say Canada per capita at about 15, ranked 3rd, because of fossil fuel extraction. But compared by country, and having 1/10 the population of the US, Canada ranks 10th (still high!). And the article comments on Qatar – way off the charts at 45. Yes – total emissions are a valid guide.

  3. The “why is there no carbon tax” section misses the real reason, IMO. Most fuel sources are subsidized by the government to stimulate the economy. Preferring one energy source over another is normally a case of shifting subsidies around – rather than taxation. An energy source would have to be very, very bad to warrant actual taxation – and few sources qualify.

  4. Both, “total emissions” AND “per capita emissions” must be a guide. First, the countries with the “largest total” have the best political possibility to make the greatest impact in reducing the pollution. Then, the countries with the largest “per capita emissions” can together make even a higher impact. I say that everybody knows this, but this has not yet gone through.

    This includes me and you: Start BUYING and investing in renewable energy. Use energy efficient heating/air systems, energy efficient lights, drive alone less, FLY less, buy local food, eat less meat, and so on. This will save the world and even save you money.


    – BUY from responsible companies and countries.
    – If you are running a company, use environmental responsibility as your key to success, as it inevitably will become a HUGE trend. (This hint was free.)
    – If you are running a country, or want to run a country, start using energy efficiency and reducing pollution as your weapon.

    Also, YOU might solve the nuclear fission problems. Study it a little.

  5. Everyone is missing nuclear power. Countries with a larger portion of nuclear power generation will of course have lower CO2 outputs per capita. France is a good example, it has 2nd highest use of nuclear power and is about 18th globally for CO2 output. Countries without nuclear example Australia, have a high CO2 output per capita.

    • Australia has a high CO2 output per capita because they burn coal for much of their power and drive large cars with inefficient engines, due largely to the poor sulphur content of their fuels as they refuse to update their refineries to produce fuel for more efficient engines. They have all the solar power in the world but the coal giants dominate politics. There are some hydro power schemes and the state of Tasmania has mainly hydro power. It’s not a lack of nuclear energy but contempt by politicians and ignorance of a large number of the population that keeps their CO2 levels high.

      • Actually we don’t have fuel guzzling cards in Australia. It’s only the USA that has that, ours are efficient. But we do have a shit tonne of agriculture – farting animals makes a lot of CO2 (and methane) emissions, with a lot of that food being exported – so really those emissions belong to other countries..

      • you are dead right Anthony, it’s embarrassing that our politicians are actual climate change deniers, and didn’t receive majority votes to gain power.
        They even used “range anxiety” of electric vehicles to discredit the opposition Labor party as they were setting decent CO2 reductions in their policies.
        They subsidize foreign investors to built coal mines and make ridiculous claims about higher CO2 being a bonus for agricultural production (Ref: Tony Abbott former PM).
        The time has come for private enterprise to say “screw you and your corrupt backhanded deals, we will produce solar, wind and solar thermal power for next to nothing and scoop the profits as we make the transition happen”

  6. If we wish to convert from fossil fuels for energy to renewables there are certain necessities we must have in place. Hydro, wind and solar must replace thermal sources. If , as is happening locally, electricity is rising in cost far faster than fossil fuels and in addition we tax all existing transportation far more, reducing the ability of consumers to convert as they would prefer, how can we say we are encouraging the broad populace to reduce their individual carbon output? Carbon taxes leaving less disposable income do not enhance the individual’s ability to convert, but rather impede their ability to do so. China has a far better plan which is at present working far better than imposing carbon taxes.

  7. If all coal power stations were converted to nuclear, CO2 would drop by a third, that’s a fact. But, it will never happen, solar and wind are too intermittent to provide base load power. Gas has half CO2 compared to coal, use with carbon collection, no CO2 from power. Coal can produce hydrogen, new tech, low CO2. Cars much cleaner. All means nothing as Australia emits only 1.3% CO2 globally, while global emissions increase at a much higher rate. World going backwards, makes no deference what Australia does.

    • If you look at the countries that individually produce 2% or less of the world’s CO2, and add their outputs up you get to around 40% of total output. So, how are we going to reduce CO2 production if these countries all say, “don’t look at me, we hardly make a difference.”?

      Target the big producers? India’s per capita output is about 1/9th of Australia’s, China’s less than half… So why should they cut emissions as we cruise along as one of the world’s highest producers of CO2?

      Renewables are quite capable of providing “base load” power. See:

    • I’ve seen that argument used by a USA citizen who argued that the USA produces only 15% of global emissions and that as a bit such a player it did not need to do anything. How can we expect others to their bit when we refuse to do ours?

  8. The USA has the second highest CO2 emissions level per capita. While at the same time the US researchers and scientists are doing amazing lab reports and saving a huge amount of time for the protection of the planet’s ozone layer. Saudi Arabia is the biggest polluter in 2019. The thesis on one of the companies explained how they work: Chevron, Coal India, and ExxonMobil.

  9. Solar and wind CAN provide base load power for all of the country through pumped hydro storage. When there is an excess of energy (eg solar on a clear day), water can be pumped from one reservoir to another at a higher elevation. It can then be stored until required, when the water from the upper reservoir falls back to the lower reservoir, turning a turbine producing electricity (as in conventional Hydro).

    This reservoir system does not have the large scale impact of flooding whole valleys as conventional hydro did. The upper reservoir only needs to be large enough to store the energy required for that location. Abandoned mine sites are being considered for this purpose.

    Two major developments occur in the Snowy Hydro and in Tasmania. Snowy 2.0 is a 2000MW system that has capacity for over a week.

    A second large capacity cable linking Tasmania to the mainland will soon be installed to capitalise on existing hydro and future pumped hydro opportunities in Tasmania. This describes Tasmania as the ‘Battery of the Nation’, capable of storing even larger amounts of renewable energy, ready to be released into the grid in minutes.

    Of course they are very, very expensive but there are enough suitable locations to store all of Australia’s energy needs. The reservoir systems do not need a water supply, though loses will occur due to evaporation.

    Disagree with coal/oil/gas for any use. If we must, gas has about double the efficiency of coal (combined cycle).

    Hydrogen should be seen only as a form of energy storage. It needs to be created through energy input so the only method not involving fossil fuels is power hungry electrolysis. Excess renewables could be used to produce H2 from water.

    Just because we are a small country doesn’t give us any excuse to not abide by the principles adhered to by most of the rest of the world. Australia is seen as a total joke by the rest of the world and our PM has similar environmental views as his man crush hero Trump.

    Agree that nuclear is a great choice, wish it was considered 20 years ago.

    Agree with those


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