COP26: why advanced countries must proportionately make the biggest cuts in carbon emissions


A briefing by Paul Atkin: As climate change and nuclear war are the two issues which can overturn the present basis of human civilisation, the COP26 conference will profoundly affect every person on our planet. It should therefore be an arena for strictly objective international scientific discussion and international cooperation, and strictly objective scientific evidence on climate change has been published in the run up to the conference.

Regrettably, however, COP26 has also become a site for geopolitical propaganda, primarily carried out by the United States; which attempts to present the advanced countries, and in particular itself, as playing the leading role, and the developing countries, particularly China, as the chief problem. The media has reflected and amplified this propaganda – for example the Financial Times, surveying the conference, declared: “China and India cast pall over climate ambitions ahead of COP26.”

This claim is the exact reverse of the truth.

  • The advanced countries, especially the U.S., are the chief problem on climate change; as their per capita carbon emissions are far higher than those of developing countries.
  • The policy positions advanced by the U.S. amount to a demand that advanced countries should be granted the right to emit far more carbon per person than developing countries.

This is unacceptable from the point of view of justice, democracy, the equality of nations, and peoples – as this policy demands that predominantly white countries should retain a privileged position compared to people of colour in the majority world.

This article has a strictly limited aim of setting out the factual position; showing how the U.S. and advanced countries are demanding a privileged position for themselves, and why this is unacceptable.

The IPCC’s scientific evidence

The U.S. and allied advanced economies in the “umbrella group”, present climate change in a way that does not acknowledge their overwhelming historical responsibility for carbon emissions. But objective scientific evidence has also shown the same pattern in the current situation. This article analyses the data produced by the IPCC in its “Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis” Report. This shows clearly that the U.S. and other advanced countries are trying to claim a privileged position in current carbon emissions too.

The key factual data concluded by the IPCC is set out in Graph 1; which shows how much total carbon emissions impacts on the chances of staying below 1.5C .

All these variants are worth analysing; but this article will look at the central one of a 50% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. This requires that no more than 500 gigatons of carbon is emitted globally.

From this 500 gigaton figure it is then easy to calculate the per capita “carbon budget”; that is the maximum allowable carbon emissions for each person on the planet – which is 64.8 tons. Given the population of each country, it is then also easy to work out the permissible carbon budget for each individual country. This means that any country asking for a per capita cumulative carbon budget above 64.8 tons is asking for a privileged position compared to humanity as a whole, and any country with a cumulative per capita carbon emission below 64.8 tons is making an above average aid to humanity in meeting this target.

Changes in population

To complete the factual picture, it is then necessary to note that over long periods of time, up to 2050 or beyond, the population of individual countries will change. For example, on UN projections, between 2020 and 2050 the population of the US will increase by 15%, India’s population will increase by 19%, but China’s population will fall by 3%, Germany’s population will fall by 4%, Japan’s population will fall by 16% etc. Therefore, it is necessary to make calculations based not only on present populations but on future population. For this purpose, in this article, projections from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs will be used.

High per capita carbon emissions are overwhelmingly concentrated in high income economies

Turning to the present situation, it is completely clear that high per capita carbon emissions are overwhelmingly concentrated in high income countries.

This key data on this is summarised in Table 2 and 3, which show a comparison to world average per capita emissions – to be clear it is not suggested present world emissions are sustainable, they are too high, but this is primarily to simply give a point of comparison for judging present relative emissions.

The pattern is evidently clear. Of the 213 countries (and 3 sub-country administrative regions), for which there is data, 78 have per capita carbon emissions above the world average.

  • Of these 56, that is 72%, are advanced economies.
  • Only 22, that is 28%, are developing economies.

In contrast there are 138 countries which have below world average emissions –

  • of which only 15, that is 11% are advanced economies,
  • and 123, that is 89%, are developing economies.

In summary, the factual situation is entirely clear. It is the advanced economies which overwhelmingly have above average per capita CO2 emissions and it is developing economies which overwhelmingly have below average per capita emissions. In short it is advanced economies whose policies and practices are least adequate to hold down emissions.

In fact, the higher the level of per capita carbon emissions the more the situation is dominated by advanced countries. Therefore, not merely historically but in terms of current emissions, the advanced economies have the policies which most diverge from what is required for the planet.

By far the greatest violators of what is required on climate change are the advanced economies, and the biggest proportional reductions which are required are therefore also in advanced economies.

The fake criteria for climate emissions put forward by the U.S.

Once the facts on per capita global climate emissions are grasped then the fakery of claims for U.S. “leadership” in fighting climate change becomes clear.

The U.S. attempts to establish the percentage reduction from current emissions as the success criterion. Thus, Biden has announced that the U.S. aims at “to achieve a 50-52 percent reduction from 2005 levels” of emissions which is supposed to represent “Building on past U.S. leadership”. Given that in 2005 U.S. per capita CO2 emissions were 20.8 tons this means that the US proposes to reduce per capita carbon emissions by 2030 to 10.4 tons.  This means that by 2030 the U.S. proposes that its level of per capita CO2 emissions should be 220% of the present world average!

That is not leadership, it is carbon damage on an incredible scale, and a claim for a completely privileged position for the U.S. in the world.

All this fraudulent method does is to protect the position of the highest CO2 emitters. To take a few examples, if the U.S. method of aiming at a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 was applied to present levels, this would mean

  • that the U.S. would be allowed to emit per capita 8.0 tons of CO2 per person,
  • China 3.7 tons,
  • Brazil 1.2 tons,
  • India 1.0 ton,
  • and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to 0.02 tons!

This is not leadership on climate change – but an attempt to claim a privileged position. Similar claims for a privileged position by other advanced economies must also be rejected.

Such an approach is not merely unacceptable from the point of view of justice but it is also ineffectual – it will never be accepted by the 84% of the world’s population who live in developing countries

The real situation on climate change

The scientific data produced by the IPCC makes it possible to calculate the real changes which are required to combat climate change.

The key consequences for climate change are concentrated in a small number of countries. Only 17 countries each have carbon emissions accounting for more than 1% of the world total. Together these countries account for 75% of world carbon emissions. Therefore, analysis of these countries is sufficient to follow the world trends.

The key data for these countries is set out here.

The pattern is clear. Of the world’s largest emitters of carbon only two, Saudi Arabia and Australia, have higher per capita emissions than the U.S. Furthermore, despite their extremely regressive policies, these are small emitters of CO2 compared to the U.S.; Australia accounts for 1.2% of world carbon emissions, and Saudi Arabia 1.8%, compared to the U.S.’s 14.8%.

In summary, the U.S. stands in a higher league all of its own in terms of its per capita CO2 emissions. In particular, making the comparison to the largest developing countries, China’s per capita CO2 emissions are only 46% of those of the U.S., Indonesia’s 15%, Brazil’s 14%, and India’s 12%. Any attempt to portray the U.S. as a leader in fighting climate change is therefore grotesque.

Because U.S. per capita carbon emissions are so much higher than any other major country it makes clear why U.S. CO2 emissions cuts must be correspondingly much more rapid than any other major country to fit within its carbon budget.  U.S. annual average reduction of CO2 emissions from 2020 onwards must be 20.2% a year – compared to 10.2% a year for China and 3.0% for India.

To be clear, for all countries, this is not the precise annual average that must be achieved but the annual average achieved over time – so if emissions fall more slowly, or rise, in the initial period there must be correspondingly rapid falls after this initial period. To give a comparison, this average means that by 2030 U.S. emissions per capita should have fallen to 1.3 tons per capita, compared to its proposed target of 8.0 tons per capita. That is the U.S. is proposing that its per capital carbon emissions by 2030 should be more than 6 times what is required to fit within its carbon budget. This has nothing to do with climate change leadership, it is climate change vandalism.


The above data does not all detract from the fact that climate change is one of the two most serious threats facing humanity – together with nuclear war. The world needs to radically reduce CO2 emissions. China, as the most advanced of the developing countries, needs to limit CO2 emissions too. But the attempt to present developing countries, and in particular China, as most responsible for the danger of climate change is purely propaganda by the U.S. – China ranks number 50 in the world in terms of per capita carbon emissions. The number 3.

There are three main forces in the world who are fighting for a just response to the common threat to humanity posed by climate change:

  • The Global South – that is developing countries, who as the data shows, are being fundamentally discriminated against by the advanced countries and in particular the U.S.
  • China, which as the most advanced and powerful of the developing countries, is a particular target of U.S. distortion and propaganda.
  • Progressive sections of the Western movement against climate change – while, as noted, the U.S. is primarily engaging in propaganda and attacks on developing countries and China there are nevertheless undoubtedly forces within the Western movement against climate change which reject such positions. Furthermore, while scientists, and research by organisations such as the IPCC,  tries to be careful not to become too involved in policy questions their research entirely undermines the claims of the U.S.

The fight against a climate change is crucial for the whole of humanity. But its starting point, as the facts show, must be that it is the advanced countries that must make by far the biggest proportional reductions in CO2 emissions. The attempt by the U.S. to present the main problems as being in the developing countries, not the advanced ones, is a statistical distortion, in an attempt to attempt to claim a privileged position for itself.

Any force fighting climate change in the West has to take this as a fundamental starting point.

This is a shortened of an article in Socialist Economic Bulletin which contains more detailed tables and a fuller argument.



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