While it’s still technically possible to limit global warming to within the limits set by the Paris Agreement, rising carbon emissions present a grave threat to the planet.

Less than 200 years ago there was hardly any CO2 in the atmosphere. In the mid-1700s, the Industrial Revolution, driven by the burning of fossil fuels, started a process that would have serious repercussions for the world we live in today.

In the early industrial era consumption of fossil fuels was comparatively low, and the UK was responsible for 100% of industrial carbon emissions. However, Britain’s model soon spread to US cities and major European economies, which led to rising emissions.

The biggest emitters
Although industrialization came late to China, it now emits more CO2 than any other country. Excluding emissions from international aviation and shipping, China was responsible for more than 29% of global CO2 emissions in 2016.

Interactive maps and charts from the Our World in Data website depict countries’ shares of global CO2 emissions.

As the chart below shows, China’s share of global CO2 emissions was almost double that of the US, the next-largest polluter. In 2016 the US accounted for more than 15% of the total, and India almost 7%. Together, these three economies generate more than half of the world’s CO2 emissions.

Image: Our World in Data

With the exception of Russia, Japan and Germany, other countries each accounted for less than 2% of global emissions. Energy-rich nations like Canada, Saudi Arabia and Iran each generated between 1.6% and 1.9%, while the remaining countries’ shares were less than 1.5% each.

Future shock

Despite growing global awareness of the dangers posed by climate change, CO2 emissions rose in 2017 for the first time in three years, pushed up by global economic growth.

The UN Emissions Gap Report analyses scientific studies on present and future greenhouse gas emissions. Its 2018 report records the widest difference between where the world is now and where it needs to be to keep global temperatures within safe limits.

According to the UN data, greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 would need to be 55% lower than current levels to keep the global temperature increase within the 1.5°C goal set by the Paris Agreement.

While most countries are not doing enough to bridge the “emissions gap”, there is huge potential to curb emissions at local, city and regional government level, and for businesses and private organizations to contribute to rolling back the impact of climate change.

More than 7,000 cities, 245 regions and 6,000 companies have committed to take action, with many taking part in international cooperation initiatives. But current national and international initiatives involve less than 20% of the global population, which leaves plenty of scope for improvement.

Governments also have the option of imposing carbon taxes or carbon trading systems on heavy polluters. Taxing fossil fuels and subsidizing low-emission alternatives provides incentives to accelerate the transition to carbon-neutral energy sources.