Heated debate: why was it so hard to get a global climate deal?

Disclaimer: the visuals used in this post were made using OurWorldInData‘s grapher tool. I would like to thank Max and the team for allowing me to use them in my own writings. OurWorldInData is a web publication which presents interactive visualisations of development and how the world is changing, and well worth exploring. You can interact, engage and explore all of the data visualisations used in this post by clicking on the image.

In 2015, members of the United Nations (UN) finally managed to agree on a new deal to address global climate change. While this meeting in Paris was seen by many as an important victory, it marked a long-fought stalemate in global negotiations—a dialogue which has spanned several decades of heated debate. So, why has it been so hard to reach a global plan on how to reduce our carbon emissions?

Before trying to unravel the complications in international negotiations, it’s important to note that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have historically been strongly linked to economic growth and human development. Below, I have plotted the relationship between national average GDP and per capita CO2 emissions (which, by clicking on it, you can explore through time). Broadly speaking, GDP growth has typically been driven by increased energy provision and industrialisation, with an unintended consequence of increased CO2 emissions. This economic-CO2 link has two important implications:

  • countries still undergoing development (and attempting to alleviate poverty) are likely to continue growth in their CO2 emissions;
  • nations may perceive targets to reduce their carbon emissions as putting themselves at an economic disadvantage relative to countries who have lesser or no reduction targets.


This has ultimately led to a distinct divide in international negotiations between developed and developing nations, with heated debate as to how the responsibility of mitigating climate change should be shared. The reasoning for this rift can be explained in three key visuals.

Who is responsible for the carbon dioxide (CO2) that has accumulated to date?
If we extend our timeline back to 1750 and total up how much CO2 each country has emitted to date, we calculate each nation’s ‘cumulative emissions’. The question ‘who is responsible for the historical contribution to CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere?’ could be reworded as ‘who has emitted the most CO2 to date?’.

In the chart below, we have plotted the cumulative emissions of each nation through time from the industrial revolution in 1750. Europe, shortly followed by North America, has been producing CO2 over this full time period. Other regions—Latin America, Asia and Africa—started contributing to global CO2 emissions much later (largely contained to the 20th and 21st centuries). Fast-forward to the accumulated totals we see today, the USA is the largest cumulative contributor (with more than double the cumulative emissions of China). As a combined emitter, the EU also dominates. Note that you can view the cumulative visual in absolute or relative terms.

From the standpoint of developing nations: the earliest industrialisers in Europe and North America hold the largest responsibility for CO2 emissions to date.

cumulative-co2-million-tonnes 2014

Which nations currently emit the most CO2?
If we forget the accumulation aspect from historical emissions, and focus on who currently emits the most CO2, does that shift the share of responsibility? Below we can view annual emissions by country through time. Note that you can choose to view any country in a line or map visual. In reflection of the cumulative chart we explored above, we can see that the annual trends of European and North American nations have grown much earlier than in other regions.

However, emissions from a number of growing economies have been increasing rapidly over the last few decades. Fast-forwarding to annual emissions in 2014, we can see that a number of low-to-middle income nations are now within the top global emitters. In fact, China is now the largest emitter, followed by (in order) the USA, EU-28, India, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, Canada and Mexico. Note that a number of nations who are already top emitters are likely to continue to increase emissions as they undergo necessary development.

This brings us to the argument of developed nations: to effectively address climate change, all of the top emitters have to take their share in carbon reduction, including nations still undergoing rapid development.


How much CO2 do we emit per person?
There is a key drawback to the measure of total national emissions: it takes no account of population size. China is currently the world’s largest emitter, but since it also has the largest population, all being equal we would expect this to be the case. To make a fair comparison of contributions, we have to therefore compare emissions in terms of CO2 emitted per person.

Below we can compare CO2 emissions per capita through time since 1950 (this data is probably most interesting when viewed in map mode). Again, if we cycle through time, we see that per capita emissions in most countries have continued to increase in line with development. However, if we look at the distribution of per capita emissions in 2014, large global inequalities remain. Note that carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change—nitrous oxide and methane are not included here. If these gases were included, the global inequalities would be even higher.

With a few exceptions, there is an important north-divide in terms of per capita emissions. Most nations across Sub-Saharan Africa, South America and South Asia have per capita emissions below five tonnes per year (many with less than 1-2 tonnes). This contrasts with the global north where emissions are typically above five tonnes (with North America above 15 tonnes). The largest emitter- Qatar- has per capita emissions of 50 tonnes per year (1243 times that of Chad, the lowest emitter).

Smaller capita emissions across low- and middle-income nations is largely a reflection of lower levels of prosperity—as these nations to develop, we would expect their per capita emissions to grow.


The great divide
So, how do these three visualisations explain the international climate divide?
From the perspective of many developed nations: some developing economies—namely China and India—are now some of the largest global CO2 emitters. As other nations also continue to develop, more transitioning economies are likely to enter the top rankings. To tackle climate change, all countries must therefore reduce emissions. If they fail to, the efforts of developed nations will be diluted to very little.

From the perspective of many developing nations: the responsibility of historical and cumulative CO2 emissions largely lies with high-income economies who have had a long history of industrialisation and development. This opportunity for development without carbon restrictions is now reflected in the large economic and lifestyle inequalities between the global north and south (as reflected in today’s differences in per capita emissions). Placing carbon reduction targets on these nations would act as an unfair barrier to development and poverty alleviation.