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How Do U.S. Carbon Emissions Rank Internationally?

It’s complicated

Coal power plant in New Mexico (Larry Lee Photography/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

President Barack Obama has announced the final version of a huge plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions, which calls for existing power plants in the U.S. to cut emissions by 32 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. But as Arielle Duhaime-Ross reports for The Verge, even this ambitious plan won’t be enough if the U.S. acts alone. For perspective, here's how the United States' carbon emissions stack up compared to those of other nations. 

Duhaime-Ross writes that China remains the largest carbon emitter in the world, though India and other developing countries are all vying for a spot on the list. However, the U.S. ranks number 2 on that list, according to 2011 data (the most recent year available from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center), reports the Union of Concerned Scientists. China emitted 8715.31 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from energy consumption. The U.S. emitted 5490.63. Russia comes in third, trailed by India and Japan.

Per capita, the picture is a bit different. Saudi Arabia tops that metric, with 19.65 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person in 2011, followed by Australia, the U.S., Canada and Russia. 

Although China tops the numbers in emissions now, this hasn’t always been the case. And if one looks at cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from 1850 through 2011, the fault rests more squarely on Western nations. The United States accounts for 27 percent of that measure and the European Union for 25 percent, reports the World Resources Institute.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use accounts for 57 percent of all key greenhouse gases. Land use, especially deforestation, accounts for another 17 percent and an additional 3 percent comes from other sources like methane and nitrous oxide.  Overall, the greenhouse gas emissions from activities that generate energy make up 26 percent of the country's carbon dioxide output, according to the EPA.

From all these numbers, it’s clear that exactly who contributes and how much to the greenhouse gases that drive climate change is a complex picture. And skewed numbers make the picture even more complicated: a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science suggests that nitrous oxide calculations from the central United States have been underreported by at least 40 percent.

While the proposed changes alone may not be enough to turn the tide, they do target the largest contributor to greenhouse gas with the most clout in the equation. What remains to be seen is if the U.S. can gain stronger footing in the push to change global habits.

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