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Catherine Ashworth
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Carbon accountability:
comparing footprints

19th February 2016

This week the UK has committed £720m to the UN’s green climate fund to help poorer nations mitigate the impact of climate change. Britain’s contribution to the fund is the largest among European nations, and is only surpassed by the US and Japan.

Critics have argued that the UK’s contribution to the fund is disproportionately large and that the money should be allocated to tackling climate-related problems at home. Meanwhile, proponents of the initiative emphasise that the poorest nations are most vulnerable to the effects of global warming, and that it is wealthy nations’ responsibility to help, since it is their carbon emissions that have caused the warming.

This raises an intriguing question: which nations are the worst offenders when it comes to carbon emissions? The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) provides detailed nation-by-nation data. It confirms that the UK’s carbon footprint is indeed relatively large; each year, we emit the equivalent of 7.8 tonnes of carbon per person. How does this compare with other countries?

Well, Britain’s carbon emissions may compare favourably with the likes of Qatar – which belches out a whopping 44.06 tonnes per capita – but we are lagging behind several of our European neighbours, including France (5.73 tonnes per capita) and Hungary (5.23 tonnes per capita). More encouragingly, we emit less per head than the Netherlands (14.4 tonnes per capita) and Germany (9.63 tonnes per capita).

Of course, a country’s carbon output is determined by many different factors, not least its population size, level of industrialisation and its climate – colder nations require more heating. The world’s outright biggest emitter of carbon is China, with an annual total of 8.13bn tonnes, yet its per capita figure is comparatively modest at 6.08 tonnes. The second-biggest total is the USA’s, at 5.48bn tonnes, equating to 17.6 tonnes per capita. At the opposite extreme, Burundi, in southeast Africa, emits just 0.19 tonnes per capita. The UK has the 10th-largest total, at 488.3m tonnes (7.8 tonnes per capita).ur sed.