Truii data visualisation, analysis and management Two miners in an underground coal mine at the Queensland Colliery Companys Gauchalland Pit Howard 1920

CO2 vs GDP: which countries are the most efficient polluters?

After a series of blogs about CO2 emissions from Australia and globally I realized that maybe I’ve approached this all wrong. Perhaps the CO2 emissions shaming shouldn’t be focused on tons per person, but tons per economic output. Effectively the worst polluters are those that are the least efficient users of fossil fuels.

We all love the beauty and environmental value of native forests, but we are willing to sacrifice some of that forest to become farmland to produce crops to keep us fed and mines to create the stuff which makes our life easier. Perhaps the same applies to CO2 pollution. The CO2 shaming should be directed toward those countries that produce CO2 without gaining any benefit.

As a basic proxy for productive output I have used gross domestic product (GDP) per person (in 2015 US dollars) as supplied by the World Bank . These GDP figures are effectively controlled for inflation, but will still grow considerably through time as we collectively produce more wealth globally (Figure 1). Now if we consider CO2 emissions for the same period (Figure 2), we see that CO2 production is pretty flat.
The upshot from Figures 1 and 2 is that for about the same level of CO2 production per person as 1960 we are producing about 21 times more economic output globally. Some countries – those above the ‘world’ line in Figure 1 are doing even better.

Figure 1: GDP per person (2015 $US).


Figure 2: CO2 per person 1960-2010


Based on this argument of productive output (measured as GDP per person) from CO2, we can simply use the ratio of CO2 to GDP to demonstrate how countries have improved their efficient use of fossil fuel burning to produce stuff (Figure 3). In 1960 China was dirty and inefficient but is steadily improving. India on the other hand hasn’t really improved much. It is difficult to see what is happening in 2010 due to the close cluster of points – which demonstrates we are converging to consistent levels of efficiency across nations.

Figure 3: Tons CO2 produced per $US of GDP – higher numbers are more polluting per $of GDP produced.

If we just consider 2010 (Figure 4) we can see that in terms of CO2 use efficiency Brazil, Europe and Japan are all doing well with about 200grams of CO2 emitted for every $US of GDP created. Interestingly, the bad boys of climate change – the US, Australia and Canada are actually doing better than the world average of about 500g of CO2/$USGDP.

Well there are plenty more countries than just his hand-picked bunch. Figure 5 lists the collection of countries with a 2010 GDP Per Person greater than $US 20,000. The idea here is to demonstrate the range of pollution efficiencies displayed across the wealthy nations.

Figure 4: 2010 CO2 use efficiency (Tons C02 per $US of GDP created).

The Macao economy seems to be a very low carbon economy (36grams CO2/$US GDP) – it seems that you don’t need to burn much fossil fuel to run a massive casino industry. Singapore, similarly is a standout of pollution efficiency. Of the more balanced economies who have significant industrial sectors and make the top ten – France is doing well (130gCO2/$USGDP), this is probably a reflection of their extensive nuclear industry, but either way, as long as they beat the supercilious Germans, the French are probably happy.

It would seem from this simple analysis that an achievable pollution target for a wealthy western economy using current technologies is around 200grams CO2/$US GDP.

Figure 5: Pollution efficiency league table – Countries which most efficiently turn CO2 into $.

The complete dataset is available on in the Blog Data area of the Example Data library – feel free to do your own analysis.

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