US and China blame each other for climate change

Why is it important

As I wrote in a newsletter a couple of weeks ago, one of the main discussions at COP27 was whether richer countries should help poorer and more vulnerable countries pay for the effects of climate change. Climate disasters have been in the spotlight this year, especially after the devastating floods in Pakistan that killed more than 1,000 people and forced millions more to flee their homes. The total cost estimate exceeded $40 billion.

After two weeks of negotiations, COP27 delegates reached an agreement to finance losses and damage … sort of. There will be a fund, but it is not clear how much it will contain and how it will work. The details will be clarified, you guessed it, at another UN climate conference – COP28 is scheduled for next year in Dubai.

Countries that pay into the fund for damages and losses do not admit guilt and do not take responsibility for climate damage. But the creation of the fund and all the discussions about climate damage raised the question: who dragged us into this mess? And who should pay for it?

Not very ancient history

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, history matters. Here’s what I mean:

  • Some greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, have a long lifespan: they are not very reactive, so they stay in the air for a long time after being released.
  • Warming depends on the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
  • So, when we talk about climate responsibility, we have to consider total emissions throughout history.

When I first learned about climate science, this logic blew me away. It’s so intuitive, yet rethinks the national climate responsibility debate in my head. I have always heard that China is the country we should all be talking about when it comes to emissions. After all, today they are the biggest climate pollutant.

But when you add up total emissions, it becomes crystal clear: The US is by far the largest emitter, responsible for about a quarter of all emissions on record. The EU follows with about 17% of the total. Finally, we have China in third place.

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