Rising emissions of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and others since the Industrial Revolution are the driving force behind climate change. Responsibility for producing these greenhouse gas emissions can be evaluated through multiple lenses.


One way to understand responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions is to examine which countries emit the most every year.

Top 10 Greenhouse Gas Emitters (Excluding LUCF)

Top 10 Greenhouse Gas Emitters (Including LUCF)

These lists include developed countries including the United States and EU member states, and large countries undergoing rapid economic growth, such as China and India. It’s also important to note that these countries produce a majority of global emissions. In 2014, they accounted for more than two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. And the one hundred countries that emit the least? They collectively produced less than 3 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions that same year.


Another way to analyze emissions is by calculating the total emissions a country produced over a specific period of time. This measurement is variously known as cumulative, total, or historical emissions.

Top 10 Cumulative Carbon Dioxide Emitters

The rest of the world accounted for the remaining 17% of CO2emissions. (Carbon dioxide is the most significant of the greenhouse gases and the largest contributor to global warming, and sometimes it is measured independently of other greenhouse gases.)

Looking at emissions through a historical lens starkly illustrates the uneven history of industrialization: about half of total carbon dioxide emissions have been produced by the first handful of countries to develop. Industrialization prompted mass gains in standards of living in those countries and huge increases in their emissions, which have only compounded with time. Although China tops the list of annual emitters as it fuels its own rapid development, for example, its CO2 emissions contributions account for only 11% of the historical total.

Global Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning (1750-2010)
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A third way to view emissions is on a per capita basis, which divides total greenhouse gas emissions by a country’s population.

Top 10 Greenhouse Gas Emitters (Per Capita)

At the top of this list are small countries with energy-intensive industries. Other large per capita emitters include countries with high rates of land-use change and deforestation relative to their populations, such as Guyana and Paraguay. Belize makes an appearance on this list because it attributes much of its emissions to waste disposal and treatment due to landfills, tourism, and an underdeveloped recycling industry.

Examining emissions through a per capita lens also exposes differences among top annual greenhouse gas emitters. For example, the United States’ per capita emissions (20 tCO2e) are more than eight times those of India (2.38 tCO2e). Although each year, the United States and India rank high in terms of annual emissions, large developing countries such as China and India emit far less per capita due to their large populations, both of which exceed one billion people.


Countries aren’t the only “emitters.” Emissions can also be analyzed in relation to the economic sector to which they belong.

World Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector

Emissions related to energy are tied to a variety of sources, including electricity and heat production, manufacturing and construction, and transportation. About two-thirds of emissions from agricultural sources comes from cattle belching, which releases methane, and the use of fertilizers, but also manure management, rice cultivation, field burning, and fuel use on farms. Industrial processes refers to emissions produced by industrial activities unrelated to energy, such as the carbon dioxide emitted during cement production, or emissions released in the use of soda ash, a material used in glass manufacturing and the production of soap and detergent. Land-use change and forestry emissions come from activities such as deforestation. Waste emissions are produced by waste elimination processes such as incineration and landfilling; as organic material in landfills disintegrates, for example, it produces methane. Bunker fuels power ships and aircraft. The term refers to the thick, viscous oil left over after crude oil goes through the refinery process to extract gasoline and diesel. Only large, complex engines like ship engines are able to heat up bunker fuel enough for it to combust.


It is also possible to identify individual company contributions to climate change over time and by year.

Top 10 Cumulative Scope 1+3 Emitters, 1988–2015

Top 10 Scope 1+3 Emitters in 2015

According to one study, since 1988, just 100 companies have produced 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions (counting both carbon dioxide and methane). In 2015 alone, fossil fuel companies and their products, particularly oil and gas, were responsible for 91% of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions and around 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions tied to human activity. This includes both corporate and state-owned entities.

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