Is China, who emits the most carbon dioxide in the world, the worst polluter?

The numbers do not tell the whole story, so countries will need to reassess their roles as they contribute towards combating climate change

Charlotte Ames-EttridgeDoris Wai |

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At the 2015 Paris climate accord, the world’s nations promised to reduce their carbon emissions to stop global temperatures from rising too much.

The amount of carbon dioxide that is released in the atmosphere as a result of a person, company, or country’s actions is known as their carbon footprint.

So when it comes to reducing their carbon footprints, who has the furthest to go?

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The International Energy Agency has records of each country’s total carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels in 2015.

Let’s take a look at the numbers:

Graphic: Doris Wai/SCMP

Clearly, China needs to do the most to reduce its emissions, right? But China is a developing country with a lot of people. Is it fair to compare it to a developed country like Australia, or a tiny city state like Singapore? If we stop comparing emissions by nation and look at them per person, does that change things?

Graphic: Doris Wai/SCMP

These results are interesting because even though the average mainland Chinese person produces far fewer emissions than the average Australian, China’s overall contribution to global emissions is larger than Australia’s because it has such a large population, while Australia has a comparatively small one.

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Measuring carbon emissions per capita therefore paints a more accurate picture of which countries need to do more to reduce their carbon footprint.

In the coming years, as countries work to meet their targets set as part of the Paris accord, they will need to re-evaluate their role in contributing towards, and helping to combat, climate change.