Historical CO2 emissions: Canada tops the list as the highest per capita emitter

Which countries are historically responsible for climate change?  is a new analysis released by Carbon Brief on October 5, and Canada scores high: #10 in the world for total historical emissions, and #1 as the worst offender per capita (calculated as cumulative emissions in each year divided by the current population – which implicitly assigns responsibility for the past to those alive today). Time to finally lay to rest that old chestnut that Canada’s contribution to the climate crisis is relatively insignificant, and we should wait till the bigger countries act to cut our own emissions.

Those bigger countries don’t escape blame either: overwhelmingly, the U.S. continues to rank as the #1 country for CO2 emissions since 1850, responsible for 20% of the global total. In comparison, the next highest-ranked countries are China (11%), and Russia (7%). Calculations of rankings are complex and subject to the mists of time, given that the calculations date back to 1850, and the inclusion of deforestation and land use emissions for the first time has also made a difference –   bringing Brazil and Indonesia into the top 10 emitters, and raising Australia to 13th rank, from 16th.      

Media summaries include: “The countries most responsible for climate crisis revealed” reposted from The Guardian by the National Observer;  “Any way you slice it, Canada  is one of the worst emitters on the planet” (National Observer, Oct. 7) ; and “Historical emissions tally paints clearer picture  of climate responsibility” (Energy Mix, Oct. 12).

It is significant that this analysis was released in the Carbon Brief series of articles on Climate Justice, and in the lead-up to COP26 . Historical responsibility for the climate crisis and the North-South divide will be a key issue at COP26, as briefly discussed in   “Rich Economies Face Demands for Cash to Fix Climate Damage” (Bloomberg News, Oct. 11), and foreshadowed by the “fiery” speech about global inequality by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres in September. Shortly afterwards, U.S. president Biden addressed the U.N. General Assembly and  promised to double U.S. climate financing aid to $11bn by 2024.  According to  “Climate Finance Faces $75-Billion Gap as COP 26 Looms 1,000 Hours Away” (The Energy Mix, Sept. 21), Canada has one of the worst records for living up to its climate financing pledges, with an average contribution only 17% of its fair share in 2017 and 2018.

An article in Ricochet summarizes the Canadian record in “Repaying our climate debt” (May 2021),  with a focus on the African operations of Canadian countries. The Ricochet article cites other recent research on climate justice: “Quantifying national responsibility for climate breakdown: an equality-based attribution approach for carbon dioxide emissions in excess of the planetary boundary” in (The Lancet Planetary Health, September 2020)   and Confronting Carbon Inequality (Oxfam, Stockholm Environment Institute, Sept. 2020), which concluded that consumption by the richest 10% of the world’s population accounts for 24.5% of global emissions today, and half of those emissions are attributed to Canada, the U.S. and the EU.