National and per capita carbon footprints differ throughout the world for a broad range of reasons. If one were to look at greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by country, there are some major discrepancies. From population size, to fuel consumption, to technological advancement, each country consumes and generates varying amounts of resources and energy. How much each area uses directly influences its yearly carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions levels.
Since the onset of industrialization, a mere handful of nations have led the world in greenhouse gases released annually…The rest of the world trails behind, resulting in dramatic incongruities worldwide.
Read on to learn more about the specific emissions by country…
Differences in Carbon Emissions by Country
Part of many global disagreements about methods for addressing climate change center on the disparities between various countries’ CO2 emissions.
Naturally, some nations will release more GHGs than others. For example, the top three carbon dioxide emitters in the world are:2
- United States
This is due to numerous factors, one of the most significant being the countries’ populations.
China is the most densely populated country in the world. So accordingly, this part of the world will consume more natural resources and energy. Plus, despite the pandemic, the country’s economic recovery caused its emissions to increase by 1.5% compared to 2019.1
Generally, countries that release more harmful gases are thought to have a more substantial impact on environmental health. Because of this, many of these nations’ citizens also have larger carbon footprints per capita. For instance, the per person emissions in the top five global emitters are as follows:2,3
- China: China accounted for a staggering 28% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, releasing 10.06 metric gigatons* (GT) of CO2 in 2018. This makes sense, as the area is home to more than 1.4 billion people, each with a per capita footprint of 7.05 metric tons (7.77 tons) of CO2 yearly.
- United States: Despite its substantially smaller population, the US is the second in line for the most global emissions. The country is responsible for 15% of emissions worldwide, or 5.41 GT as of 2018. It has the third-largest population globally (although it’s far behind the top two), with each person contributing 16.56 metric tons (18.25 tons) of CO2 annually.
- India: India’s population is a close runner-up to China, with about 1.3 billion individuals. The country accounts for 7% of the world’s emissions, one of the largest shares of any country. In 2018, this amounted to 2.65 GT of CO2. Interestingly though, India’s per capita footprint is one of the smallest worldwide, amounting to only 1.96 metric tons (2.16 tons) of CO2 per year.
- Russia: Trailing behind India, the Russian Federation is responsible for 5% of the globe’s emissions each year. More specifically, this country emitted about 1.71 GT of CO2 throughout 2018. On average, each of its 145,275,380+ citizens sustains a GHG emissions level of 11.74 metric tons (12.94 tons) of CO2 per year.
- Japan: Japan represents the fifth and final country that emits more than 1 GT of CO2 every year, clocking in at 1.16 GT in 2018. It hosts only a fraction of the other countries’ populations (except Russia), with only 127,763,265 people. Yet, the per capita footprints are some of the world’s most substantial, each at 9.13 metric tons (10.06 tons).
*One metric gigaton is equal to one billion metric tons or about 1.1 billion tons. This is the equivalent of approximately all the mass of Earth’s land mammals.
Too hard to visualize?
It’s twice the mass of all humans on the planet.4
Differences in Fuel Consumption Lead to Emissions Discrepancies by Country: Energy Use
Another factor that determines the differences between countries’ GHG emissions is their fuel consumption habits. Every nation relies on a unique combination of fossil fuel resources. For example, some nations might lean more heavily on coal power, while others have progressed to more sustainable energy sources like solar, wind, or water.
Furthermore, some communities live without many modern energy conveniences altogether. According to The World Bank, 789 million people live without electricity.5 Hundreds of millions more lack sufficient access to electrical power.
Whether this is by choice or not, this sets a clear distinction in power consumption rates throughout the world. For example, if you observe the top five emitters discussed in the previous section, it’s clear that some nations’ citizens simply use more power than others. Yet, some countries that made it into the top five have surprisingly low per capita carbon footprints.
For example, India has some of the smallest carbon footprints in the world, ranked last (number 21) out of the top-emitting countries globally behind:3
- Turkey, 5.19 metric tons (5.72 tons)
- France, 5.19 metric tons (5.72 tons)
- Mexico, 3.77 metric tons (4.16 tons)
- Indonesia, 2.30 metric tons (2.54 tons)
- Brazil, 2.19 metric tons (2.41 tons)
This is mainly due to energy use differences between India and the other top emissions contributors. In recent years, India has made a solid push to transition its power to renewable energy sources.
Between 2019 and 2020, the nation’s energy demands saw a few changes:6
- Electricity demand fell by 2.7%
- Coal: -6.9%
- Oil: -8.8%
- Gas: -1.4%
- The demand for renewables and “other” energy sources rose by 4.9%
The nation also reduced its carbon dioxide emissions significantly by 8% and continues to resolve its pollution problem. In 2020, India reduced its air pollutants by 11.7%.
Since supply and demand are ever-changing variables, countries’ emissions are fluid. Still, annual averages have kept the top countries in their positions since the ‘60s.7
Agricultural Practices Can Change Carbon Emissions
Food production is another key contributor to a nation’s GHG emissions. According to the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR), agriculture can comprise anywhere from 0 to 98% of a country’s GHGs. On average, though, the practice accounts for 30%.
In more than 42 countries worldwide, agriculture is responsible for more than half of the nation’s emissions and just about one-quarter of GHGs in 91 countries. The most environmentally impactful agricultural industries can be found in:8
- United States
These four nations alone are responsible for 39% of the entire world’s agricultural emissions.8
Surprisingly, none of these areas have as substantial a per capita agricultural emissions rate as Australia. In the land down under, this industry sees about 4-5 tons of CO2 equivalent per person.8
How Does Agriculture Play a Role in a Country’s Carbon Emissions?
One of the lowest contributors in this sector, Niger, might shed light on why these differences exist. Most of this country’s agricultural system relies on smallholder subsistence farms.
Although 40% of its GDP centers on crops and livestock, they manage to contribute minimally to global GHGs since their crops are mostly rain-fed. Less than 10% of the country’s crops are maintained with irrigation, one of the most environmentally harmful aspects of food production.9,10
Additionally, a Princeton study found that Niger farmers are excellent at maintaining crop heterogeneity.10 This means they grow different crops together, as opposed to only one plant as in monocultures, which are prone to disease die-offs. Monocultures necessitate harmful pesticides and herbicides.
This country alone demonstrates that geographic differences and variations in societal norms can influence just how much one nation contributes to global environmental decline.
Countries With the Lowest Carbon Emissions in the World
A few countries are closer to their climate remediation goals than their global neighbors. Unfortunately, data on which countries are the lowest CO2 contributors is limited, since much of the focus lies on the top 20 GHG producers for mitigation purposes.
However, plenty of estimates exist for which nations have achieved the lowest per capita emissions. In this category, the five countries with the smallest individual carbon footprints are:11
- Lesotho: 0.01 metric tons
- Burundi: 0.04 metric tons
- Chad: 0.04 metric tons
- Mali: 0.04 metric tons
- Congo (DRC): 0.05 metric tons
(Since the values are so small, they’re roughly the same in U.S. tons.)
How Do These Countries Manage To Be So Eco-Friendly?
Perhaps the most fundamental reason why these areas don’t pump out as many harmful gases as their Western neighbors, is that they don’t rely on the same technology.
Many say that they haven’t reached the same “level” or “stage” of industrialization, but this language implies that each nation is working toward the same technological advancement goals. Such an implication is inaccurate. Yet, for the sake of standardizing data, researchers have classified these areas of the world as some of the least industrialized in the world, allowing them to use far less fossil fuels than other places.12
Though many historical factors have caused these countries to emit so few GHGs, conscious national action has also led to their greener lifestyles. For example, clean cooking fuels are on the rise in Lesotho as households switch to cookstoves that mitigate air pollution.
This is also one of the nations with compromised access to electricity. Estimations show that it will likely take until 2030 for Lesotho to supply just over 54% of its population with electrical power.13 Even if the country were to use all its power right now, it still wouldn’t produce enough GHGs to ascend too much higher up the global emitters list.
Take Control of Your per Capita Footprint: Reduce Your Country Carbon Emissions
Looking at carbon dioxide emissions by country can put a lot of perspective into the climate change crisis, and where you stand in it. The good news is, even if your nation is a high emitter, you don’t have to settle for the country’s carbon footprint. You can take control of your individual emissions by using tree planting carbon offset strategies offered by the best carbon offset programs, and making wise, sustainable choices in every facet of your life, from grocery shopping, to travel and beyond. Participating in Earth day events and considering the 51st Earth Day: Carbon Offset Membership are some of the ways to be more environmentally friendly.
A smaller carbon footprint is only a few clicks away. Calculate your emissions using an ecological footprint calculator now to get started in minimizing the environmental impact and carbon emissions of your country right away.
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1Myllyvirta, L. (2021, March 1). Analysis: China’s CO2 emissions surged 4% in second half of 2020. Carbon Brief. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from: <https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-chinas-co2-emissions-surged-4-in-second-half-of-2020>
2Union of Concerned Scientists. (2020, August 12). Each country’s share of CO2 emissions. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from: <https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions>
3Worldometer. (n.d.). CO2 emissions by country. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from <https://www.worldometers.info/co2-emissions/co2-emissions-by-country/>
4Hanania, J., Jenden, J., Stenhouse, K., & Donev, J. (2018, June 25). Gigatonne. University of Calgary | Energy Education.Retrieved July 31, 2021, from <https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Gigatonne>
5The World Bank. (n.d.). Energy. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from <https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/energy/overview>
6International Energy Agency. (2021, February). India energy outlook 2021. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from: <https://www.iea.org/reports/india-energy-outlook-2021>
7Ritchie, H., & Roster, M. (2020). CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions. Our World in Data. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from: <https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions>
8Richards, M., Wollenberg, E. L., & Gluck, S. B. (2015). Info note: Agriculture’s contribution to national emissions. Climate change, agriculture, and food security. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from: <https://cgspace.cgiar.org/rest/bitstreams/61660/retrieve>
9Alhassane, A. (n.d.). Niger: Description of cropping systems, climate, and soils in Niger. Global Yield Gap Atlas. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from <https://www.yieldgap.org/niger>
10Kelly, M. (2020, May 5). Expansion, environmental impacts of irrigation by 2050 greatly underestimated. Princeton University. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from <https://www.princeton.edu/news/2020/05/05/expansion-environmental-impacts-irrigation-2050-greatly-underestimated>
11Carbon Offsets to Alleviate Poverty (COTAP). (n.d.). Per capita carbon emissions data by country. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from <https://cotap.org/per-capita-carbon-co2-emissions-by-country/>
12Upadhyaya, S. (2014). Country grouping in UNIDO statistics. United Nations Industrial Development Organization. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275019711_Country_grouping_in_UNIDO_statistics>
13Mpholo, M., Mothala, M., Mohasoa, L., Eager, D., Thamae, R., Molapo, T., & Jardine, T. (2021). Lesotho electricity demand profile from 2010 to 2030. Journal of Energy in Southern Africa, 32(1), 41-57. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from <https://doi.org/10.17159/2413-3051/2021/v32i1a7792>
14Photo by Pedro Henrique Santos. Unsplash. Retrieved from <https://unsplash.com/photos/jSjsgkZtJGE>
15Photo by Alison Pang. Unsplash. Retrieved from <https://unsplash.com/photos/pJzak8FZmo0>