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-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. 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.

1 China 10,291,926
2 United States 5,254,279
3 India 2,238,377
4 Russia 1,705,345
5 Japan 1,214,048
6 Germany 719,883
7 Iran. 649,480
8 Saudi Arabia 601,046
9 Korea, Rep. 587,156
10 Canada 537,193
11 Brazil 529,808
12 South Africa 489,771
13 Mexico 480,270
14 Indonesia 464,176
15 United Kingdom 419,820
16 Australia 361,261
17 Turkey 345,981
18 Italy 320,411


Source: World Bank

Lowest CO2 emissions per Capita

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

Madagascar 0.096
Eritrea 0.089
Niger 0.089
Malawi 0.083
Ethiopia 0.075
Somalia 0.063
Central African Republic 0.061
Rwanda 0.055
Congo, Dem. Rep. 0.049
Mali 0.045
Chad 0.040
Burundi 0.033
Lesotho 0.009


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.

Read moreTop CO2 polluters and highest per capita

Environmental Kuznets curve


Definition: The environmental Kuznets curve suggests that economic development initially leads to a deterioration in the environment, but after a certain level of economic growth, a society begins to improve its relationship with the environment and levels of environmental degradation reduces. From a very simplistic viewpoint, it can suggest that economic growth is good for …

Read moreEnvironmental Kuznets curve

Economics and the environment

Readers Question: Is it possible to construct the economic system so that does not rely on expanded growth which as we all know, is damaging the environment? causing pollution e.t.c.

Photo: Takver
Photo: Takver

Could we have a society without economic growth? or as economists might prefer to answer – Can we have environmentally sustainable economic growth?

To promote an economic system without economic growth isn’t necessary. It is possible to have economic growth (increased output and living standards) whilst at the same time improving the environment we live in. But, this requires a much more conscious decision to place the environment as a primary economic objective. If you leave economic growth to the free market, inevitably we will see economic growth leading to environmental problems.

One of the great challenges of modern economics is to protect the environment. Part of the motivation is a simple moral case for being good guardians of the earth. But (fortunately for economics) there is a strong case of intrinsic self-interest. Protecting the environment nearly always makes good economic sense – as long as we look at issues in the long-term and not just from a short-term / selfish perspective.

The environmental costs of economic growth

Rapid economic growth combined with a rapid population growth has placed great stress on the environment. If we are not careful – damage to the environment will threaten future living standards. For example:

  • Air/land/water pollution causes health problems and can damage the productivity of land and seas.
  • Global warming leads to rising sea levels,  volatile weather patterns and could cause significant economic costs
  • Deforestation damages soil and makes areas more prone to draught.
  • Economic growth leads to resource depletion and loss of biodiversity
  • Creation of waste and toxins.


The past 50 years has seen a 60% increase in CO2 emissions – a product of economic growth.

What economic system could help promote environment?

The first essential aspect is for society and governments to recognise all the external costs and external benefits of the environment.

External costs from pollution
External costs from pollution

If we leave it to a free market, consumers and firms will ignore the external costs of their actions and we will get overconsumption, environmental costs – and a decline in economic welfare.


We need to put a monetary value on the cost of pollution / environmental damage and make sure that is reflected in the price people pay (e.g. tax on negative externalities). This will mean the cost of burning fossil fuels will increase – reducing demand. The biggest problem is making sure that we actually include all environmental costs in the price of goods and services we use.

For example, if burning fossil fuels is causing global warming and sea levels to rise. The effect could be devastating to future generations. In this situation, we are underestimating the external cost of this pollution. We are not paying the full social cost, and in the long-term we are failing to correctly price goods.

The long-term view

A difficulty is that we are used to pricing the cost of a good in terms of present value. Many environmental problems are cumulative and the costs are to future generations and people elsewhere in the world. Because we ignore these future costs, we are underestimating the potential social cost of current actions.

Another difficulty in calculating future costs is that we don’t know for certain. There is an element of uncertainty. This means we have to deal with probabilities. However, if we are dealing with the environment, there is a good case for being risk-averse and not gambling on the hope that global warming will be less damaging than some scientists predict. Reducing CO2 emissions can be done with only marginal cost to current consumers. But, damaging the environment in the long-term could lead to a devastating high cost to future consumers.

Positive technology

On the other hand, we need to encourage the production and consumption of technologies which don’t damage the environment.

To give a simplistic example – we could increase tax on petrol (which causes pollution). Then use this tax revenue to subsidise solar powered/electric cars which don’t pollute.

This will ensure that our society seeks to reduce the consumption of goods which are damaging to the environment. We can enjoy the same level of transport, but it will be supported by a different energy source which doesn’t damage the environment.

People often ask how economic growth can help the environment. Technology is the key. If we develop technology which creates a more efficient source of energy, but without pollution – this would enable higher output, and reduce pollution levels.

e.g. a steam train caused high pollution levels. An electric train powered by solar powered energy plants can go much faster and doesn’t create pollution – that is economic growth and less pollution.

Limits of tax and subsidy

However, the use of tax and subsidy is not enough to deal with all environmental problems. For example, if we take the problem of deforestation of land in South America / Africa, a different response is needed.

For example, it may require governments to actually ban the process. It also requires a strong degree of international co-operation. Developing countries may feel a strong economic need to cut down forests or mine precious metals. However, it would be in the interest of the whole world to protect forests. Therefore, there may be a need for transfers to very poor countries in return for adopting less environmental damaging operations. Alternatively, it may just be a case of the need to educate about long-term sustainable practices.

As well as government action, there needs to be a change in consumer behaviour. A willingness to shift consumption patterns and be willing to pay higher prices and/or avoid consumption of certain products. e.g. only buy in season fruit, adopt a vegetarian diet. People want to protect the environment, but are we willing to pay an extra 10% increase in fuel bills?

Read moreEconomics and the environment

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