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Visualizing Global Per Capita CO2 Emissions

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Highest Per Capita CO2 Emissions

This was originally published on December 1, 2021, on Visual Capitalist.

Developing countries like China, India, and Russia are some of the highest producers of CO2 worldwide and will be so for a while. But the situation is far from straightforward—and looking at CO2 emissions per capita can add nuance to the overall story.

Based on data presented by the Aqal Group and the IEA, here we visualize the countries and regions with the highest per capita carbon emissions from around the world.

Let’s dive into the highest per capita carbon emitters and how they are trying to reduce their carbon contributions.

Leaders in Per Capita CO2 Emissions

Oil-producing countries in the Middle East are the highest emitters of CO2 on a per capita basis, but developed countries like the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada also have some of the higher rates of per capita emissions.

RankCountry or RegionCarbon Emissions Per Capita (t/year)
#1Middle East A*19.5
#2Canada15.2
#3Saudi Arabia14.5
#4United States14.4
#5Australia & New Zealand13.6
#6Russia11.4
#7South Korea11.3
#8Kazakhstan & Turkmenistan11.2
#9Taiwan10.8
#10Japan8.4
Global Average4.4

*Middle East A group includes Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates

Canada and the United States have per capita carbon footprints of 15.2 and 14.4 tonnes per year, respectively. Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand combine for an average per capita footprint of over 13.6 tonnes per year.

It’s worth noting that all of these numbers are more than three times higher than the global average, which in 2019 was 4.4 tonnes per person.

Energy Sources and Per Capita CO2 Emissions

Since there is a strong relationship between wealth and per capita CO2 emissions, we’d expect countries with high living standards to have a high carbon footprint.

But the data above shows significant differences in per capita emissions, even between countries with similar living standards. Many countries across Europe, for example, have much lower emissions than the U.S., Canada, or Australia.

Here’s a look at the top 25 countries by standard of living and their share of electricity production from fossil fuels:

RankCountryPer Capita Electricity
Consumption (kWh)
% Electricity Production
(from fossil fuels)
1🇫🇮 Finland12,17415.6%
2🇩🇰 Denmark5,01521.8%
3🇳🇴 Norway26,4921.2%
4🇧🇪 Belgium7,41434.6%
5🇸🇪 Sweden16,4782.2%
6🇨🇭 Switzerland7,9351.0%
7🇳🇱 Netherlands7,26471.5%
8🇫🇷 France8,0979.5%
9🇩🇪 Germany6,77143.8%
10🇯🇵 Japan7,44669.1%
11🇬🇧 United Kingdom4,50040.7%
12🇨🇦 Canada16,64816.6%
13🇰🇷 South Korea10,45865.8%
14🇺🇸 United States12,23560.1%
15🇹🇼 Taiwan11,09182.8%
16🇦🇹 Austria7,71620.7%
17🇦🇺 Australia9,85775.1%
18🇮🇪 Ireland6,40859.3%
19🇸🇬 Singapore8,54296.7%
20🇪🇸 Spain5,64134.4%
21🇮🇹 Italy4,55456.8%
22🇨🇿 Czech Republic7,53450.7%
23🇵🇹 Portugal5,10041.2%
24🇳🇿 New Zealand8,88018.9%
25🇱🇺 Luxembourg1,52928.5%

Sources: Electricity consumption, Fossil fuel mix

The choice of energy sources plays a key role here. In the UK, Portugal, and France, a much higher share of electricity is produced from nuclear and renewable sources.

For example, only 9.5% of France’s electricity production comes from fossil fuels, compared to other developed countries like the U.S. at 60.1% and Japan at 69.1%.

G20 Countries and Carbon Emissions

This reliance on fossil fuels for energy production extends to the rest of the G20 countries. According to the Climate Transparency Report, CO2 emissions will rise by 4% across the G20 group this year, dropping 6% in 2020 due to the pandemic.

This rise is mainly due to the increase in coal consumption across these countries. Coal consumption is projected to rise by almost 5% in 2021, with this growth driven by China (accounting for 61% of the growth), the U.S. (18%), and India (17%).

Here’s a look at the current coal power capacity of each G20 country:

coal power capacity of g20 members

Coal use in China has surged, with the country experiencing increased demand for energy as the global economy has recovered. Coal prices are up nearly 200% from a year ago.

Plans to Tackle Emissions

The conclusion of the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow saw several pledges and announcements being made by various countries. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The world’s biggest CO2 emitters, the U.S. and China, pledged to cooperate more over the next decade in areas including methane emissions and the switch to clean energy.
  • Leaders from more than 100 countries—with about 85% of the world’s forests—promised to stop deforestation by 2030.
  • More than 100 countries agreed upon a scheme to cut 30% of methane emissions by 2030.
  • Financial organizations have agreed to back renewable energy and direct finance away from fossil fuel-burning industries.

Many countries have pledged to do their part to tackle climate change. It will be an impressive display of global unity if global CO2 emissions drop significantly over the next decade.

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Emissions

The Most Polluted Cities in the U.S.

Here are the most polluted cities in the U.S. according to data from the American Lung Association’s 2024 State of the Air Report.

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Teaser image for an infographic showing the most polluted cities in the U.S. according to the American Lung Association's 2024 State of the Air report.

The Most Polluted U.S. Cities in 2024

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths annually, and could cost the global economy between $18–25 trillion by 2060 in annual welfare costs, or roughly 4–6% of world GDP.

And with predictions that 7 in 10 people will make their homes in urban centers by mid-century, cities are fast becoming one of the frontlines in the global effort to clear the air.

In this visualization, we use 2024 data from the State of the Air report from the American Lung Association to show the most polluted cities in the United States.

What is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is a complex mixture of gases, particles, and liquid droplets and can have a variety of sources, including wildfires and cookstoves in rural areas, and road dust and diesel exhaust in cities.

There are a few kinds of air pollution that are especially bad for human health, including ozone and carbon monoxide, but here we’re concerned with fine particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 microns, or PM2.5 for short.

The reason for the focus is because at that small size, particulate matter can penetrate the bloodstream and cause all manner of havoc, including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and chronic pulmonary disease.

The American Lung Association has set an annual average guideline of 9 µg/m³ for PM2.5, however, the World Health Organization has set a much more stringent limit of 5 µg/m³.

The 21 Worst Polluted Cities in the U.S.

Here are the top 21 most polluted cities in the U.S., according to their annual average PM2.5 concentrations:

RankCity, StateAnnual average concentration, 2020-2022 (µg/m3)
1Bakersfield, CA18.8
2Visalia, CA18.4
3Fresno, CA17.5
4Eugene, OR14.7
5Bay Area, CA14.3
6Los Angeles, CA14.0
7Sacramento, CA13.8
8Medford, OR13.5
9Phoenix, AZ12.4
10Fairbanks, AK12.2
11Indianapolis, IN11.9
12Yakima, WA11.8
13Detroit, MI11.7
14Chico, CA11.6
14Spokane, WA11.6
15Houston, TX11.4
16El Centro, CA11.1
17Reno, NV11.0
18Pittsburgh, PA10.9
19Kansas City, KS10.8
19Las Vegas, NV10.8

Note: The American Lung Association uses Core Based Statistical Areas in its city and county rankings, which have been shortened here to the area’s principal city, or metro area in the case of the Bay Area, CA.

Six of the top seven cities are in California, and four in the state’s Central Valley, a 450-mile flat valley that runs parallel to the Pacific coast, and bordered by the Coast and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. As a result, when pollution from the big population centers on the coast is carried inland by the wind—cities #5 and #6 on the list—it tends to get trapped in the valley.

Bakersfield (#1), Visalia (#2), and Fresno (#3) are located at the drier and hotter southern end of the valley, which is worse for air quality. The top three local sources of PM2.5 emissions in 2023 were farms (20%), forest management / agricultural waste burning (20%), and road dust (14%).

Benefit to Economy

While the health impacts are generally well understood, less well known are the economic impacts.

Low air quality negatively affects worker productivity, increases absenteeism, and adds both direct and indirect health care costs. But the flip side of that equation is that improving air quality has measurable impacts to the wider economy. The EPA published a study that calculated the economic benefits of each metric ton of particulate matter that didn’t end up in the atmosphere, broken down by sector, including utilities.

SectorBenefits per metric ton
Residential Woodstoves$429,220
Refineries$333,938
Industrial Boilers$174,229
Oil and Natural Gas Transmission$125,227
Electricity Generating Units$124,319
Oil and Natural Gas$88,838

At the same time, the EPA recently updated a cost-benefit analysis of the Clean Air Act, the main piece of federal legislation governing air quality, and found that between 1990 and 2020 it cost the economy roughly $65 billion, but also provided $2 trillion in benefits.

Benefit to Business

But that’s at the macroeconomic level, so what about for individual businesses?

For one, employees like to breathe clean air and will choose to work somewhere else, given a choice. A 2022 Deloitte case study revealed that nearly 70% of highly-skilled workers said air quality was a significant factor in choosing which city to live and work in.

At the same time, air quality can impact employer-sponsored health care premiums, by reducing the overall health of the risk pool. And since insurance premiums averaged $7,590 per year in 2022 for a single employee, and rose to $21,931 for a family, that can add up fast.

Consumers are also putting their purchase decisions through a green lens, while ESG, triple-bottom-line, and impact investing are putting the environment front and center for many investors.

And if the carrot isn’t enough for some businesses, there is the stick. The EPA recently gave vehicle engine manufacturer Cummins nearly two billion reasons to help improve air quality, in a settlement the agency is calling “the largest civil penalty in the history of the Clean Air Act and the second largest environmental penalty ever.”

Learn how the National Public Utilities Council is working toward the future of sustainable electricity.

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Emissions

Visualized: Global CO2 Emissions Through Time (1950–2022)

In this streamgraph, we break down global CO2 emissions between 1950 and 2022 using data from Berkeley Earth and Global Carbon Project.

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Preview image of a streamgraph showing global CO2 emissions between 1950-2022, broken down by region.

Visualized: Global CO2 Emissions Through Time (1950-2022)

Global CO2 emissions have grown six-fold since 1950.

But which countries have contributed the most to this growth?

In this streamgraph, created in partnership with the National Public Utilities Council, we answer that question using regional emissions data from Berkeley Earth and Global Carbon Project

Global CO2 Emissions: The Last 70 Years in Review

In the 1950s, the United States and the countries that later formed the European Union (EU) were the biggest emitters in the world, responsible for over 70% of total annual emissions.

However, this trend swiftly changed as other nations entered the fray.

For instance, China’s economic surge in the 1970s, particularly with the advent of Deng Xiaoping’s new economic strategy in 1978, triggered a notable uptick in the country’s CO2 output. From 1950 to 2000, China witnessed a surge of over 4,500% in emissions, reaching an annual 3.6 billion tonnes by 2000.

Similarly, India, Japan, and the broader Asian region, all experienced emission growth exceeding 1,000% between 1950 and 2000.

Metric tons of carbon dioxide (tCO2)195020002022Change 1950–2000Change 2000–2022
China0.1B3.6B11.4B4,529%213%
Asia (excl. China, Japan, and India)0.2B3.2B6.2B1,973%95%
United States of America2.5B6.0B5.1B136%-16%
European Union1.8B4.2B3.1B134%-26%
Rest of World0.4B2.5B2.9B465%16%
India0.1B1.0B2.8B1,500%189%
Russia0.4B1.5B1.7B256%12%
Africa0.1B0.9B1.4B876%52%
Japan0.1B1.3B1.1B1,132%-17%
South America0.1B0.8B1.1B621%34%
Canada0.2B0.6B0.6B268%-3%

Data note: 1950 was used as a beginning point for the graph due to the lack of available data for many countries prior to that year. 

As illustrated in the table above, the growth in global carbon emissions has slowed since 2000.

With that said, global emissions have still risen from 25 billion tonnes in 2000 to 37 billion in 2022, yet another all-time high. Today, over 40% of emissions come from the United States and China, underscoring their pivotal roles in shaping the global emissions landscape.

Where Are We Headed From Here?

The United Nations’ recent Emissions Gap report highlights a concerning reality: the ongoing rate of emissions combined with existing policies steers humanity towards a world that is 3°C warmer than pre-industrial levels. This contrasts starkly with the goals of 1.5–2°C agreed to in 2015.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that such a degree of warming will bring catastrophic repercussions, from severe changes in weather patterns to rising sea levels, widespread extinctions, and critical disruptions to global food and water systems.

This underscores the critical need for swift, concerted action to curb emissions and mitigate the impending environmental challenges that are potentially before us.

Learn more about how electric utilities and the power sector can lead on the path toward decarbonization here.

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