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Since the Industrial Revolution, rising emissions of greenhouse gases have been the main driving force behind climate change.

However, who is really responsible for emitting the most greenhouse gases?

The answer is not quite as clear cut as one might assume – it depends on how the data is collected, how we answer the question, and what parameters such as time frame or per capita are included.

Top emitters of greenhouse gases source Climate Watch Data

The above graph from Climate Watch Data breaks this down into top global emitters in 2018.

The developed nations of the United States and the EU are both in the top 5 while China and India are both highly populated and rapidly advancing economies. Pertinently, not only do all of these countries listed have the largest greenhouse gases emissions, they are also the largest economies in the world. So the looming question is: does reducing emissions also mean less growth?

However, the above graph fails to show exactly how much these countries are emitting in relation to the rest of the world.

The following pie chart (you can also view an interactive version here) highlights that these top 10 emitting countries contribute more than two thirds of global emissions.

To put it in another way, the bottom 100 emitters only account for 3.6% of total global emissions!

Top 10 GHG emitters from Climate Watch

You can view an interactive version of the graph here

What does this mean? The world cannot successfully fight climate change without significant action from the top 10 emitters.

While these charts show the top emitters over the year 2018, when accounting for cumulative historical emissions, the rankings switch.

As this video shows, the first major emitters from fossil-fuel burning were the Western developed nations such as the United States and Wester Europe.

These countries continue to be at the forefront of global emissions even as other parts of the world, namely those highly populated countries such as China, India and Russia, catches up.

Because countries like the United States and Western European nations have been the top emitting countries for many years since the Industrial Revolution, they overtake emerging economies such as China and India as the top 2 emitters.

This graph below shows this.

Top emitters of greenhouse gases from 1850-2018 source Climate Watch Data

Go to the Climate Watch Data website and play around with the different parameters for the top emitters. Use the following table to note your findings. Identify:

The top 5 countries in 2018

The top 5 countries, cumulatively

The top 5 countries per capita in 2018

The top 5 sectors in 2018

By using other resources, the top 5 companies in 2018

A final question for you to answer.

Who is ultimately the most responsible for human-induced climate change? Should countries be responsible or should industries be responsible?