HomeCO2 and Greenhouse Gas EmissionsGlobal inequalities in CO2 emissions

Global inequalities in CO2 emissions

There are massive differences in emissions across the world. How do income groups and regions compare?

The impacts of global climate change will be cruelly unequal. The world’s poorest are likely to be the most vulnerable.

What makes this cruel is that the poorest have contributed least to the problem through their emissions. Take a look at a map of CO2 emissions per person, and you can see the huge differences in emissions across the world.

There are a few ways to visualize this inequality in global emissions. One way is to look at the contribution of each income group; another is to look at regional differences.

In this post, I’ll take a brief look at each.

Global inequalities in CO2 emissions by income group

The average person in high-income countries emits more than 30 times as much as those in low-income countries.

Another way to present per capita emissions, is to compare a country or region’s share of global emissions, to its share of the population.

In the chart we see both metrics across the four World Bank income groups. This is based on the income level of the country – it does not account for inequalities in emissions within countries, which can be just as large as differences between them.1

In an equal world, each group’s emissions share would match its population share.

Instead, we see that high- and upper-middle income countries account for a much larger share of emissions than their population. Despite being home to just under half of the world population, they emit more than 80% of world’s CO2.

For lower-middle and low-income countries, it’s the opposite. The bottom half emit less than 20%. And the poorest countries emit less than 1%.

Click to open interactive version

Global inequalities in CO2 emissions by region

How do emissions and population stack up across geographical regions?

We see the same comparison below, but by region instead of income group.

Asia’s emissions and population share are almost equal. What this hides is the large variations in emissions within Asia. China emits significantly more per person than the global average, whereas India emits much less.

Europe, North America and Oceania all emit more than their ‘fair share’ based on population, whereas Africa and South America emit less.

Click to open interactive version

Global inequalities in CO2 emissions, adjusted for trade

The comparisons above are based on domestic emissions – that is, emissions generated within a country or region’s borders. It doesn’t adjust for emissions embedded in traded goods.

What happens when we adjust for this ‘offshoring’ and trade of emissions?

The global distribution doesn’t change dramatically.

More than 80% of the world’s emissions are produced by the top-half of the world population (high- and upper-middle income countries).

The main difference is that emissions from high-income countries increase slightly, while they decline at upper-middle incomes. This represents the trade between these country groups: upper-middle income countries produce goods that are consumed in high-income ones.

The emissions shares of lower-middle and especially low-income countries could be slightly underestimated; this is because consumption-based emissions cannot be calculated for some poorer countries due to poor data availability.

However, the end result would not change much. Richer countries emit much more than their population share, and poor countries emit much less.

Click to open interactive version


  1. See Chancel, L. and T. Piketty (2015), “Carbon and inequality: From Kyoto to Paris. Trends in the global inequality of carbon emissions (1998-2013) & Prospects for an equitable adaptation fund”, Paris School of Economics, Paris.

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    author = {Hannah Ritchie},
    title = {Global inequalities in CO2 emissions},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2023},
    note = {}
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