More than 100 leaders, including President Joe Biden, are at COP26, a United Nations summit to address the world’s top climate change challenges. VERIFY has published multiple climate change-related stories this week to coincide with the conference, including how chocolate production is contributing to deforestation and that humans are responsible for more carbon emissions than volcanoes.
Which country emits the most carbon dioxide continues to be a topic of discussion around climate change. This year, Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have blamed China for emitting more carbon dioxide than any other country in the world.
Is China currently the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide?
Yes, China is currently the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and has been every year since 2006. Prior to that, the United States was the biggest annual emitter.
WHAT WE FOUND
Estimates for how much carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere vary. VERIFY compared data from two sources: the International Energy Agency and Global Carbon Atlas, a collaborative of researchers across the world. The most recent year VERIFY could find data from both organizations on China’s total carbon emissions was 2019.
The International Energy Agency estimates 33.4 billion metric tons of energy-related carbon dioxide was emitted around the world in 2019. Global Carbon Atlas estimates 36.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide was released from human activity in 2019.
But both groups agree China was the world’s biggest emitter that year – releasing nearly 30% of the world’s human-produced carbon dioxide. They also agree the U.S. was the second-biggest emitter.
The International Energy Agency estimates China emitted 9.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019, followed by the United States’ 4.7 billion metric tons. Global Carbon Atlas says China produced about 10.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019, and the U.S. emitted 5.2 billion metric tons.
While China is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide today, it didn’t use to be.
Historical data from the International Energy Agency, which goes back to 1973, and from the Global Carbon Atlas, which dates to 1960, show the U.S. has cumulatively emitted the most carbon dioxide. But China overtook the U.S. in annual emissions in 2006 and has remained the world’s biggest emitter every year since.
China’s carbon emissions tripled between 2000 and 2019, according to the International Energy Agency. Meanwhile, U.S. carbon emissions have dropped slightly over the past decade.
China and the U.S. are the biggest total carbon emitters, but the two countries don’t release the most carbon dioxide per capita. According to The World Bank’s most recent data from 2018, Qatar emitted the most carbon dioxide per capita. The U.S. ranked 11th while China ranked 32nd.
Carbon dioxide accounts for about 66% of the warming effect on climate, according to the World Meteorological Organization, an agency of the United Nations. World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are as high as they’ve been in millions of years.
“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3 to 5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now,” Taalas said. “But there weren’t 7.8 billion people then.”
A 2021 report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that limiting human-induced global warming relies on reducing carbon emissions.