Global warming: Blame the English

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Who’s responsible for global warming? That is, what nations have put the most climate-changing pollution in the air?  It’s no small question in international discussions, as different countries point fingers and debate who should do the most to solve this crisis. Looking at overall emissions today paints one picture, but seeing the historical record may change your perspective.

Overall emissions

A recent report from Concordia University in Montreal details which countries have been the largest contributors to climate change, dating back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Not surprisingly, the world’s most powerful economy, the United States, has put the most pollution into the global atmosphere. In fact, we produced about one-fifth of all greenhouse gases over the last two centuries or so.

The top emitters also included three historically industrial economies and three emerging powerhouses. Russia kicked in 8% of the pollution, while Britain and Germany were each responsible for 5%. China has contributed 8% of historical emissions; and Brazil and India added 7% of the total.  In all, these seven countries produced more than 60% of all the greenhouse gas pollution since 1790.

Emissions on a per-capita basis

The picture is a little different when you look at it on a per-capita basis: That is, how much pollution does each country produce per person. From that point of view, Britain, which kicked-off the Industrial Revolution and has the smallest population of the seven, had the highest amount of pollution per citizen. The U.S. was second. China and India, with their large populations, were only 19th and 20th.  In other words, each Briton and American produces a lot more pollution than do people in China and India.

You might say that the historic records don’t matter. We need to cut pollution today, and the fact that a given country did or didn’t add pollution in the past is irrelevant. If China is the current top emitter, which it is, then who cares that they are historically below the U.S., or their per capita contribution is lower?

In one sense, that’s true.  What matters is cutting pollution today, and if China is polluting a lot then we can’t solve the problem unless China cuts emissions a lot. But look at it from their perspective for a moment. For two hundred years, Western nations have built wealth and power by burning fossil fuels. 

Now, just as China and India are working their way out of poverty – trying to bring up hundreds of millions up from deprivation to the kind of comfortable lives we have in the U.S. and Western Europe – they are being asking to radically cut their use of those fuels.  If the situations were reversed, I’m sure Americans would resent having to fix a problem created mostly by other people.

Acknowledging the past while improving the future

The fairest thing to do would be to require each country to contribute as much to the solution as they did to the problem. But, unfortunately, fairness won’t get the job done in this case.  The British, who as individuals did the most to cause it, are not going to be able to do the most to solve it – their economy is only 2.8% of world GDP. 

And the Chinese, who are 20th on the list as individuals, are collectively the world’s largest polluters, so they’re going to have to be a big part of the answer.  And with our vast economy, and position as the most influential nation, we are going to have to play a very big role.

So as we focus on what needs to be done, let’s not forget how we got here.  My tongue-in-cheek headline to this post aside, it’s not a matter of blame, it’s a matter of approaching the discussion with an understanding of the historical reality. As a great nation, we have to accept responsibility for leading the world toward a solution to a problem we had a lot to do with causing. 

Keith Gaby

Keith Gaby

Keith is Environmental Defense Fund’s climate communications director.

 

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Comments

Excellent article Keith, but I' m little uncomfortable with you referring to greenhouse gases as "pollution" simply because they can confuse the issue and associate actual air pollution with something many of us consider to be far more dangerous; carbon and methane gas emissions.

Then again, I live here in the states where actual air pollution doesn't begin to approach the level of toxicity it does in, say, China.

Ken -- Thanks for your thoughts on the post. You're right that you often hear greenhouse gases described as "emissions", and that's a perfectly appropriate term. But I think "pollution" is equally accurate. First, I think it meets the test of what most people consider air pollution -- you burn something and stuff comes out of a smokestack that harms the environment. Second, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts vs. EPA that greenhouses gases meet the legal definition of a pollutant. They noted that they Clean Air Act (CAA) defines and "air pollutant" as "any air pollution agent or combination of such agents, including any physical, chemical, biological, radioactive . . . substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air" and said that "greenhouse gases fit well within the CAA’s capacious definition of air pollutant."

I see your point that some people aren't as used to thinking of greenhouse gases as air pollution in the same way as conventional pollutants. But part of finding a solution to this challenge is getting more of the public to understand that -- in both a common sense and legal sense -- greenhouse gases are air pollution.

So I take issue with a few points in this article, and many like it. While I understand the scientific and sociological implications of understanding the who what and how, or in this case, how much, of historic greenhouse emissions, it does little good for articles to point blame, even tongue-in cheek as the author Mr. Gaby indicates. There are many readers who will not make it to the explanation that this article is not about blame but understanding how we have come to have these discussions in the first place. Not to mention the ability for these types of articles to be used negatively in today's hyperbolic media. I suppose I am trying to say that this information could have been delivered in a more responsible manner.
My other issue is not with the article per say, but the belief that it is somehow unfair to hope that China and other emerging economies utilize new technologies. That is the definition of progress! Britain gained much of their early wealth and power via their vast navy on sail, whaling created a number of economies that flourished only to be replaced by newer, cheaper, easily exploited resources. These new technologies are better for the environment as well as utilize renewable and virtually limitless resources, it is a win win for all. I know, we can go and discuss the costs per unit of energy per BTU created or any number of other ways to look at it that makes it appear to be a disadvantage to the developing nations, however it is the nation that grabs hold of and utilizes new technology that surpasses those who chose to say, travel via sail or write this diatribe by whale oil lamp. Ultimately these articles do grab peoples attention and may garner a reader who would otherwise overlook a dry boring statistical article explaining historical emissions. Thank you and keep up the good work.

Jeff, thanks for your thoughts. You raise two main issues, I think.

First, you note that the headline on the post seems a little irresponsible. I actually have the same reaction to headlines that, in an effort to attract attention, say something too sensational. I don't think this falls in to that category, but obviously that's a judgement call. My sense was that it would have been read as a hyperbole by most readers. (By the way, it is often the editors who write the headlines, but in this case it was me.)

On China, I didn't mean to let them off the hook. We cannot solve climate change unless China changes they way they power their economy. My point was more that more developed Western nations like the United States and those in Western Europe should approach this discussion with an understanding of the historical situation. The increasingly urgent scientific data will not allow anyone to use historical excuses to opt-out of clean energy.

The Global Warming is real and its here with us now....Anactual steps urgently needed to be implemented.

Blame everyone , make it fair lol

I think it interesting that greenhouse gas emissions are generalized and assumptions are left to be made about their content, quantity and severity. The number one greenhouse gas (Oxy Di-Hydride - tongue in cheek - H2O) is almost never mentioned, but is a significant factor in the equation of "global warming" and has been for longer than man has existed. Furthermore, why is the argument now being made that the warming caused by man-made "pollutants" began two hundred years ago? Is it because it fits the current understanding by the populace that this trend began after the Little Ice Age and a new narrative needs to be developed to explain the current 17 year leveling of temperature - even though China and India and Brazil and a host of smaller nations have ramped up their fossil fuel consumption??
Perhaps it's about the money...