climate change equality

Video: Who is responsible for fixing climate change?

Responsiblility for climate change is an issue I’ve addressed in various ways on the blog over the years. Here’s one of the more accessible explanations I’ve come across: a video presentation from the YouTube science explainers Kurzgesagt. It looks at current and historic emissions, and how we balance the past and the present.

If you’re familiar with these debates, pass the video along to those who might not be. If you’re new to the argument, this is worth ten minutes of your time to help get climate change in context.


  1. What a fab video. Thanks for sharing. I had heard that the carbon emissions created by exported goods are registered in the country of manufacture and that if the emissions associated with a product was assigned to the importing country the figures would change very dramatically. Do you know if that is true?

          1. Unfortunately LLII a focus on Britain’s ‘imported’ emissions isn’t particularly useful. For four reasons:

            1. Over recent years, the world has changed massively. Today the world’s principal consumer market is the huge and burgeoning middle class (probably close to a billion people) that has emerged across India, China and Southeast Asia. Today the goods these advanced ‘developing’ countries export to each other are hugely significant.

            2. Since 2000, emissions in the EU and US have fallen by over 1 billion tonnes of CO2 p.a. while China and India’s for example have increased by over 9 billion. No doubt a small part of these increased emissions has offset our savings, but clearly the vast bulk has gone into developing their own economies and thereby giving their citizens a better life. For example, China and India have, over recent years, lifted over one billion people out of dreadful poverty by giving them access to reliable electric power derived from fossil fuels – mainly coal.

            3. Just as the UK did when it was ‘the workshop of the world’, China and other developing countries have benefitted enormously from their export businesses – jobs, economic growth, poverty alleviation, development of skills and know-how, etc.

            4. But above all, when it comes to global emission reduction, we have no choice but to work from where we are now – and that means reducing them at their current source. Arguments, such as historic responsibility and ‘imported’ emissions, are interesting but – in the final analysis – pointless.

  2. “historic responsibility and ‘imported’ emissions, are interesting but – in the final analysis – pointless” – very much in your opinion. To China and India, they’re very important.

    And for all the complications of international trade, it isn’t actually very difficult to calculate the embodied emissions of imports, and debit our exports, and establish what our true global footprint is.

    1. it isn’t actually very difficult to calculate the embodied emissions of imports

      Maybe not. But, as I note above, global emissions can only be cut by reducing them at their current source.

        1. Quite true. But nonetheless global emissions can only be cut by reducing them at their current source. That’s why, when the IPCC advises that emissions must be cut by 50% if temperatures are not to exceed 1.5ºC, it doesn’t say that cuts should be adjusted to take account of imported emissions.

          1. I don’t understand your point Robin about emissions only be tackled at source. If I don’t buy something that is made in China or India, while living in Ireland then I am affecting emissions in another country, is that not the case?

          2. LLII: you’re right – if you don’t buy in Ireland an item that’s made in China and that results in the item not being made at all, the emissions associated with that manufacture are cut at source. And that’s my point.

  3. Thanks Jeremy for providing a link to this remarkable video – clear, well-produced and cleverly illustrated. Moreover, the data presented are essentially accurate. Unfortunately however, it completely overlooks the main reason why, despite all those scientists’ warnings, greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. And that’s because most non-Western countries (the source of 75% of emissions) are either unconcerned about the impact of GHGs on the climate or don’t regard the issue as a priority. Yet it’s not mentioned in the video.

    That omission is hugely misleading. I could provide various examples of why, but I’ll confine myself to one – and to one that at first sight might seem to be a rather unlikely example. It’s this:

    In support of its statement that ‘wealth is one of the strongest indications of our carbon footprint…’, it states (essentially correctly) that the average German ‘emits more than five times as much as the average Indian’, noting that ‘The developing world will be hit the hardest…’.

    But that’s misleading. Germany has a population of about 80 million people, about 65 million of whom are comfortably middleclass and some very wealthy. India in contrast has a population of about 1.3 billion, about 750 million of whom are extremely poor. But it also has what is described as a ‘middleclass’ of about 300 million people, although few of them would be so described by Western European standards. But some – about 80 million – certainly are: amongst them are those employed in the electronics, movie, space, aeronautical and military sectors. And doctors, scientists, lawyers, accountants, financiers, investors (think JaguarLandrover), entrepreneurs, etc. And some of these people are very wealthy indeed: Yet these people, many wealthy even by German standards, and therefore having a huge carbon footprint, are exempt under the Paris Agreement from any obligation to cut their emissions – simply because they live in a country along with millions of very poor people. It makes no sense.

    1. I like your argument about how the wealthy are exempted from reducing their carbon footprint. I have a follow up question, why do people around the world still focus on carbon emissions per country and not per capita?

      1. My point Ibrahim is not that the wealthy are generally exempted (they’re not), but that they are if they live – as huge numbers do today, especially in India, China and SE Asia – in what is categorised as a ‘developing’ country.

        The focus tends to be on per country rather than per capita emissions because the world is organised into nation-states. That may have serious drawbacks, but it gets things done in a way that would not be possible if the global population was somehow organised (by whom?) to reflect for example wealth, social class or per capita emissions.

        But looking at per capita emissions produces some extraordinary anomalies. For example, the average per capita emissions of 32 countries are greater than those of the EU. These include China (despite its 1.4 billion population), Iran, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea and Taiwan. Yet, unlike the EU, all these countries are exempt from any reduction obligation under the Paris Agreement. And of course these are averages and don’t therefore include the millions of wealthy people in India for example whose effective exemption is real but hidden.


        1. I should clarify one point in the above. In the third line of the third paragraph I should have referred to ’32 developing countries’. Apologies.

  4. You’re like a broken record Robin, back again with blaming developing countries for being “unconcerned ” – as if the thousands of words I’ve written specifically for your benefit were never written. Doesn’t exactly encourage me to engage with your points I’m afraid.

    1. back again with blaming developing countries for being “unconcerned”

      Here’s what I actually wrote: ‘most non-Western countries … are either unconcerned about the impact of GHGs on the climate or don’t regard the issue as a priority’. I believe that’s an accurate statement. And I’m not ‘blaming’ them. If I criticise anyone, it’s Western negotiators who – following the example of Obama’s weak performance at his summit with Xi in November 2014 – feebly capitulated at Paris in December 2015, allowing the big ‘emerging’ economies to continue to enjoy their exemption from any obligation to cut their emissions.

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