Top CO2 polluters and highest per capita

The biggest absolute emissions of CO2 come from China and the United States.

top 20 co2 polluters Source: World Bank CO2 emissions (kt)

In recent years, China has accelerated past the United States and is the biggest polluter in absolute terms, (which is unsurprising given China’s population and fast economic growth. India is also catching up.)

Biggest CO2 Polluters per capita

This measures the level of CO2 per person. Thus China with the highest CO2 in absolute terms is ranked considerably lower down.

highest-co2-polluters-per-capita The highest CO2 Polluters per capita are dominated by oil producing countries who refine oil and emit CO2 in the oil extraction and refining process.

Consumption-based emissions (trade adjusted)

It is worth bearing in mind that this data shows CO2 production in a country. CO2 by consumption would look different. For example, the UK is a net importer of CO2. In recent decades, the UK has reduced CO2 emissions per capita because manufacturing has declined and we import goods from other countries. In other words, CO2 emissions are produced elsewhere but the UK enjoy the goods.


US is a net importer of CO2. Adjusted for consumption, the US total would be 7.7% higher.

china-co2-emissions-production-consumption Source: Our World in Data

China is a net exporter of CO2. Adjusted for consumption, the Chinese total would be 14% lower.


Selected countries CO2 emissions per capita


Source: 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.
  • Focus of the economy. Economies based on oil  (like Qatar, Russia 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. Some richer countries have reduced CO2 emissions, but are contributing to CO2 because they are importing goods from other countries, where the CO2 is produced.
  • Transport policy. Levels of petrol tax and balance of transport modes can influence CO2 emissions. Countries with the 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.

Why the UK has a decline in CO2 emissions?

The UK has reduced its level of CO2 emissions due to

  • Significant decline in number of coal-burning power stations.
  • Growth in renewable energy (wind/solar)
  • Decline in manufacturing – push CO2 emissions offshore.
  • More fuel efficient engines.
  • Greater population density tends to reduce per capita emissions as greater population density encourages more efficient living (more public transport/cycling)


There was a temporary fall in CO2 emissions in the middle of 2020 due to the Covid induced economic shutdown, however these falls tend to be only temporary. For example, in the financial crisis of 2008, economic downturn led to lower Co2 Emissions, however, this was a minor blip.


Source: World Bank

Lowest CO2 emissions per Capita


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

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.

Co2 Emissions and global warming

CO2 emissions are widely considered to play a significant role in contributing to global warming.

Global CO2 source: wiki commons
  • Over the past few decades, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere have continued to rise. Scientists say this increase in CO2 has contributed to global warming.
  • Global warming has potentially damaging economic consequences with increased weather variability and loss of biodiversity.
  • At Kyoto, countries made commitments to target lower CO2 emissions, but these targets have rarely been met. At negotiations, countries collectively agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (which includes Carbon dioxide) by 5.2% on average for the period 2008-2012.

Change in CO2 Emissions per Capita in the past two decades


The biggest challenge to limit carbon dioxide is faced by developing economies with rapid economic growth. Due to rapid growth, there is a tendency to see quicker increases in CO2 use, e.g. as people can afford cars and production increases.


45 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.

      • But what is the problem? Odor? Unpleasant noises? The elevator? Ventilation?

        That is the problem. Carbon-dioxide has always been considered a “building block of life” until it recently began being promoted as “pollution.” Is the problem semantics? Or is carbon-dioxide some kind of wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing planning on burning our choices, reputations and grandchildren to crisp? Or something else entirely?

        • Bob, carbon dioxide causes global warming by trapping heat in the atmosphere like a green house.
          The data shows the correlation between the two. The consequences of this correlation are evident.
          We have just spent months fighting fires that have burnt hundreds of thousands of square kilometres.
          Try drawing a strip on a map of your area 150km wide and a 1000 km long. That is what has just been burnt out around here.
          Australia has been in the grip of un-precedented drought because of the IOD (Indian Ocean Dipole) and global warming. The Great Barrier Reef is dying because of the hot water from global warming. It is 2300km long. It is the largest living thing on the planet and it is dying!
          So, yes carbon dioxide is the big bad wolf and your grand children will be burnt to a crisp unless YOU take action to save them.
          This is not a false alarm. The time to act is NOW.
          I bet your grand father would have done anything to protect you as a child. Are you as good a man him? What will you do to save your grand children.
          The time to act is NOW.

          • Hahaha – what tripe Lew!!!

            The area you were talking about burnt is not even the biggest area burnt in Australia recorded history by a country mile – look up the stats. why wasn’t it more if its all getting worse than ever…?
            Australia in Drought – what a suprise!! – now it is in a flood – what happened to global warming?
            the great barrier reef is now recovered and growing more and faster than ever – climate change again??? – HAHAHA!

            Get a grip mate – you obviously haven’t lived in Australia very long.
            Around the world we’ve had more crops than ever, less deaths than ever from natural disasters, and most islands are growing in land size – not disappearing.
            start looking up some facts for once, and stop talking rubbish.
            …Oh – and thanks for the laugh!!!! 🙂

        • Well, carbon is the building block of life and it is also a greenhouse gas. There’s no contradiction, there’s the matter of its quantity that’s in living organisms (we are amidst a fastest mass exticnctoin ever and humans and livestock hardly make up for it) while the carbon previously trapped in fossils is being introduced into the atmosphere.

      • He is the most wrong one out there but that how actually things work. The ones at the top, with the lowest number are the most responsible, and the ones at the bottom being greater and most in the number are least( when observed on the basis of per individual ).

    • 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.

    • So you are effectively saying its ok for me to Pollute as Im rich but if you are poor and there are more of you then you cant pollute. Crazy. Per capita is the measure. We need to reduce the per person footprint globally.

  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.

    • Yes, you are right at all. All other statistics for the whole pollution of the country is misleading at all.

      • 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?

        • Regarding extraction vs consumption, correct. This is exactly why per capita is misleading. All the citizens of a high per capita country can change their individual behaviour but if there is an industry in that country that is still churning out CO2 and exporting the resulting product then the citizens have nothing to do with it. They are not driving the demand for products that are responsible for CO2, the citizens of the importing country are.

          • It’s not only about industries.
            Thinking about it like costs: there will be necessary ‘fixed emissions’ and there will be behavioral ‘variable emissions’ (for lack of better terms).
            For example you NEED a certain amount of hospitals per capita to deliver passable healthcare. You don’t NEED a vehicle for every person in a country nor do they need to use it for every trip (in the vast majority of cases).
            Emissions are tied to quality of life as well as population and other things mentioned.
            In developing countries the quality of life impact of significant emissions reductions can literally lead to people dying. In America? Well, sizable cuts in specific sectors can be made from reducing decadent practices like the largest percentage of meat eaters simply not gorging themselves on beef multiple times every day. There really doesn’t exist a moral argument to be made for the developed world not cutting emissions.

            Per capita provides extremely important information when paired with everything else we know. It’s a much better general measure than total emissions in a huge number of contexts, especially when considering societal operation necessitates a certain amount of ‘fixed emissions’ that come from necessity instead of luxury.

            Also, often the behavioral change and industry you mentioned aren’t separate issues but one and the same. The most notable example of this is probably the employment relationship.

    • 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.

    • Per capita is a form of measurement with ZERO correlation to effect. It takes a special kind of stupid to place measurement over effect 😣 Why does this need to be explained to people??

      Stop confusing per capita metrics as superseding absolute environmental impact. Using your braindead reasoning you would proudly choose to receive 100% of $100,000 dollars rather than ‘ONLY’ 10% of $10,000,000. See how the numbers can distract and confuse leading to a clearly dumb choice? Rethink your position…

      • Now – I know this is economics, and notoriously, economists don’t do numbers, but seriously?
        Total emissions globally is the most important thing. Total emissions per country is irrelevant if you are comparing countries – you have to do it on a comparable baseline, and whilst it’s theoretically valid, you won’t persuade a Miami Beach resident to live like a subsistence farmer in Chad. It only really becomes useful when you can use it to guide decisions, preferably ones that shift the needle rapidly. Perhaps ’emissions per $GVA’? that will tell you which economies are co2 efficient (add lots of value per kg co2 emitted) and which are inefficient. It would be even better to compare for similar activities in different countries – eg agriculture, distribution, transport, heating, government, – all against some common baseline comparator (e.g. GVA). Then see who was best at generating value with minimal impact on the environment in comparable activities. Also, it will show up the most polluting activities across all economies (be it goods transport, oil extraction, cattle farming, making cement, whatever) .

      • Written like someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about in the slightest….
        In the first place, “Per capita is a form of measurement with ZERO correlation to effect.” this isn’t even true. Not even close. Hell, it should be intuitive that it isn’t true.

        Per capita provides valuable information that can be paired with other data (such as a governments ‘goods basket’ used for things like poverty measurement). Since the obvious goal is to reduce emissions, comparing emissions in this way allows for numerous benefits to numerous parties such as:
        -companies who can realize business opportunities related to inefficiency visible in the data
        -countries forming hypotheses/action plans based on potential improvements gleaned from citizen emissions stats in other countries
        -scientists can pair this with country-specific industry data to estimate citizen usage
        -In general, the data trends with development progress across countries. Tracking this is extremely valuable for multiple things like estimating future emissions by development expectations.

        -For purposes of some abstract ‘blame assignment’ (because shills often use this argument to dishonestly absolve their countries of responsibility showing a depressing level of incompetence), there will be a difference between necessary emissions for certain countries to operate and emissions which can be cut without significant consequences. By “significant consequences” I mean things like the officially estimated pittance of economic growth reduction spread over decades that would still deliver a near-normal net positive for Canada to achieve paris accord targets.

        Comparing per capita costs across countries, we can acknowledge that those costs include things that don’t necessarily come from behaviors of citizens (like large industries or societal costs – government, military, etc.)
        Obviously, the goal is to reduce emissions worldwide. It’s intuitive that it would be FAR more difficult, FAR more unreasonable, and FAR more costly to reduce emissions of low per-capita countries (under data that excludes specific exceptionally polluting industries, hell even the majority of data that doesn’t). This is a simple intuitive consequence of diminishing returns and the growing percentage of the “per capita” stat that would be represented by societal necessities (which in many cases CANNOT be cut). Additionally, many of the stats not attributable to citizen behavior like military or government emissions make sense to display on a per-capita basis. Comparing these particularly shows relative efficiency (which, again is useful data).

        Your argument seems to come from ’emissions cause global warming so look at the most emissions’ and then abruptly ceases any critical thinking. Particularly on things you SHOULD be thinking about like the best way for the problem to be solved.

        When actually considering the best way worldwide to cut emissions, who can bear how much of the burden, who needs to improve efficiency, etc (You know, the questions relevant to ACTUALLY solving the problem competently) per capita stats become a necessity.
        Pretending they don’t have value or comparably less value than total emissions is either ignorance or dishonesty. This isn’t to say, that action on them alone is sufficient. Optimal action requires both per capita and total aspects to be addressed.

    • If per capita is used as a guide to cite individual responsibility as the vehicle for reducing carbon output then it is flawed. Some nations produce carbon dioxide emissions as a result of industry that the individual has little control over (unless that individual is leading the country or industry responsible for the emissions. Total emissions is at least as important as per capita as a measurement; both measurements (and probably more) must be applied and adjusted to develop solutions.

    • Hi it’s not only about no of persons!
      There are two way that CO2 emissions can be produced one is Production based and the other one is consumption based .
      What you are referring is consumption based bit which is not the case always in many countries.
      Take an example of Qatar this produces more CO2 during the fossil fuels extraction and rest of the other world countries enjoy the fuel.So CO2 emissions per capita is higher in Qatar not because of consumption but because of extraction.Hope you got something.

  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.

    • Thank you for the clear and helpful reply. It makes sense that we must use both measures to attack the problem from every angle and at every level. As for per capita emissions, I’m ashamed to report that more and more of my piggish ignorant fellow Americans are choosing natural gas for heat and appliances (instead of electric) for residential and commercial buildings even though the electric grid is getting greener by the day thanks to wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower. Demand for fossil fuels (even when there are green alternatives) is increasing. To guarantee continued fossil fuel consumption, the natural gas industry has convinced 19 Republican controlled states to make it illegal for towns to ban natural gas hook-ups in newly constructed buildings. Further, home owners in some states who would like to switch to all-electric can’t afford to because the gas industry has started charging an “exit fee” of $1,400 to turn off gas service. Republicans and the fossil fuel industry accelerate climate catastrophe in every conceivable way.

  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..

        • Australia makes a lot of money by exporting agricultural products. If you stopped doing it, your economy would shrink substantially. The farting animals keep Australia richer just as fossil fuels keep Qatar or Saudi Arabia richer. These emissions belong to you because it supports the livelihood of your people.

        • Er no, your cars are very inefficient when compared to the majority of the planet (Asia, Europe, Africa). If you use the USA as your yardstick then you’ve got bigger problems.

      • 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”

        • If your going to make comments be factual. Labor lost the election for they received 1 million less votes than the LNP. There hasn’t been a new coal plant built in Australia for 11 years and 13 have closed in the same period. So your statement is that Australia has subsidies for coal is incorrect.

      • I’m Australian and I agree with this response 100%.^^
        The politicians in power have the coal giants giving them sweet deals under the table to maintain the acceleration of our fossil fuel exportation economy. It’s unfortunate.
        And now in 2020 with the worst bushfire season ever. There’s no moisture in the land, it’s dryer than ever before. And the denial and/or non action from our government is gross.
        We have the 2nd highest green house emissions per capital in the world. And that’s sad and irresponsible.
        Especially considering Australia’s dark European history with the traditional custodians of the land.
        You think us as Australians would have learnt from that terrible history to take more care of the land and listen to the indigenous people as to how they dealt with the yearly maintenance of the land, to prevent and take care of the land.
        Rather than use and abuse it.

        But as it stands we are stuck with a greedy ignorant government that is either in denial or just trying to sell that global warming isn’t real so that they can continue their personal beneficial monitory relationship with the fossil fuel coal parties.

        The other issue is the general population, half the population are either uneducated on the topic or perhaps to illiterate to come up with a coherent response to even the most basic questions.
        The one thing I’ve noticed as an Australian is that half the population is actually really really stupid. Like incredibly dumb.

        Perhaps it’s the laid back attitude we enjoy so much as Australians it could have allowed for bogans, rednecks and ignorant muscle men and beach babes to pollute our population with ignorant minds.

  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:

      • Charles both of the above reduction in emissions need to occur. The 40% and also the larger volume output countries. China is rising quickly and are building more and more coal fired power stations at a rate three times faster than the world combined.

    • 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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