Myth buster: China and India’s carbon emissions

We’ve heard it before, “have you seen the emission figures? Look at China and India, it’s all their fault!”. This is a myth that we’ll debunk by addressing some popular beliefs surrounding global emissions.
  Published:  01 Sep 2021    |      2 minute read

1. “The stats don’t lie” 

But they sure skew the truth. 

Image displaying graph of per capita greenhouse gas emissions which shows India and China to be low contributors per capita and historically, in comparison to EU countries and US.
Per capita greenhouse gas emissions data
Credit: Our World in Data

We tend to measure emissions by nation instead of per capita (shown in the graph above). This skews the simple truth: even if India’s national emissions rate is higher than the US and EU countries, a person from India contributes far less emissions than the average US and EU citizen. 

We also need to consider the entire picture and that means looking to the past. Historically, countries like the US and EU countries have contributed way more to climate breakdown than China and India. The historical concentration of industry and wealth in the more developed countries reveals:

  • The US was responsible for around 400 billion tonnes of CO2 since 1751 – a total of 25% of historical emissions. Meaning the US has emitted more CO2 than any country to date and twice as much as China.
  • 28 European countries (including the UK) are large historical contributors to emissions, totalling a 22% cumulatively. 
  • Historically, places like India are not large contributors.

2. “If they’re not cleaning up their act, why should I?”

This is a statement used to avoid personal responsibility when it comes to the climate crisis. It derails and suppresses conversations about climate action.

We need to remember how we’re all connected in this crisis. Yes, places like India and China have polluting factories which destroy our planet, and they need to move towards cleaner production methods too. But it’s worth remembering that these factories produce goods that are imported and consumed by countries like the UK and the US, so a lot of the time their pollution is, in fact, our pollution. That's why we need a global solution to the climate emergency.

A global solution to climate change isn't going to happen if countries like the UK don’t follow the science, face up to their responsibility and take the lead with urgent and ambitious climate action.

3. “Developing countries are to blame for the climate crisis”

Poorer countries need help to develop renewables and deal with the impacts of climate breakdown. The UK and other rich countries must pay their fair share. 

The richest 10% of people are responsible for 50% of climate-wrecking pollution, which means countries like the UK, one of the richest in the world, have both a historical responsibility and the capacity to act on climate. The estimated average carbon footprint of the world’s richest 1% is significantly higher – could be up to 175 times – that of someone in the poorest 10%.

And let’s not forget who suffers the most. A new report by UNICEF revealed that 1 billion children are at extremely high risk of the impacts of the climate crisis, threatening their health, water access, education and lives. Many of these at-risk children are from countries in the global south who have not contributed to the climate crisis. The poorest are hit first, and hit hardest, affecting food supply forcing starvation, depleting water supplies, destroying homes and creating climate refugees, to name but a few of the impacts.

With COP26 (the UN Climate Change Conference) taking place in Glasgow this year, it’s the perfect time to demand that wealthier countries do a whole lot more to control and reduce the impacts of the climate crisis. 

Environmental defenders: fighting for change 

At great risk to themselves, people living in places like China and India are doing tremendous work to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis.

Disha Ravi is a prime example. The young activist is the founder of the Indian branch of the global youth climate movement, Fridays for Future network.  In February 2021 she was arrested and charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy for protesting against new agricultural laws which farmers say are "anti-farmers laws" and will leave them at the mercy of big corporations.