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Global Carbon Emissions: Unraveling Responsibility and Action


By Bevin Hewa PalihakkaraPublished 8 months ago 3 min read

Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, human activity has unleashed an unprecedented surge of carbon dioxide (CO₂) into Earth's atmosphere, totaling over 1.5 trillion tons. In 2019 alone, we added nearly 37 billion more tons, marking a 50% increase from the year 2000 and nearly three times the emissions of half a century ago. This escalating trend has grave consequences, evident in record-breaking heat waves, glacier melt-offs, and historic lows in Arctic ice coverage.Global warming refers to the long-term increase in Earth's average surface temperature due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These gases trap heat from the sun, preventing it from escaping back into space. The primary greenhouse gases responsible for global warming include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorinated gases. To combat this urgent crisis, it is imperative that we rapidly reduce our collective emissions.

Responsibility and Current Emissions

The question of who bears the greatest responsibility for current emissions is multifaceted. In 2017, Asia accounted for over 50% of global emissions, followed by North America and Europe at 18% and 17% respectively. China stands as the largest global emitter, contributing 10 billion tons of CO₂ annually (27% of global emissions), with the USA (15%) and the European Union (10%) trailing behind. These three entities, along with a handful of other industrialized nations, are collectively responsible for over half of global CO₂ emissions. Therefore, their active participation is indispensable in achieving carbon neutrality.

Historical Emissions: A Different Perspective

Analyzing emissions over history shifts the narrative. The United States and the European Union emerge as the leading culprits, together responsible for 47% of historical emissions. The U.S., historically accounting for 25% of global emissions, released an astounding 400 billion tons, primarily during the 20ᵗʰ century. Following closely, the EU's contribution stands at 22%. Meanwhile, China's share drops to just under 13%, notably less than half of the U.S.'s cumulative emissions. India, Africa, and South America's contributions shrink drastically, emphasizing the disparity between historical emissions and current responsibility.

Population and Emissions: Disentangling the Factors

Focusing solely on national emissions overlooks the critical influence of population size. Nations with large populations inevitably emit more CO₂ due to increased energy demand, transportation needs, and industrial output. Therefore, it is essential to consider per capita emissions alongside total national emissions.

Countries with smaller populations may emit less overall, but their per capita emissions can be disproportionately high. Wealthier nations often have higher per capita emissions due to greater industrialization and consumption patterns. Conversely, developing nations with large populations may have lower per capita emissions, but their collective contributions can still be significant.

The Road to Equitable Climate Action

Achieving equitable climate action necessitates acknowledging both historical emissions and current contributions. While historically high emitters bear a significant burden of responsibility, all nations must collaborate to address the global climate crisis. This involves assisting developing nations in transitioning to sustainable technologies and practices.

Additionally, it is imperative to address the role of the fossil fuel industry. The industry's actions and lobbying efforts have played a substantial role in perpetuating carbon emissions. Transitioning to renewable energy sources and implementing strict regulations on emissions are crucial steps in mitigating the impact of this powerful sector.


Global warming and climate change are challenges that require collective, international solutions. While historical emissions underscore the responsibility of early industrialized nations, current emissions highlight the role of major contemporary emitters. Striking a balance between historical accountability and present-day action is essential for equitable climate action. By fostering cooperation, implementing sustainable practices, and transitioning to cleaner energy sources, we can work together to mitigate the dire effects of global warming and ensure a sustainable future for generations to come.

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About the Creator

Bevin Hewa Palihakkara

Bevin Hewa Palihakkara

Medical student

23 years old

I am interest in human behavior and climate change.

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  • Alex H Mittelman 8 months ago

    Great work! Fantastic! ❤️

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