Responsibility for Climate Breakdown

Rich countries are responsible for the vast majority of the excess emissions that are causing climate breakdown, while the impacts fall disproportionately on communities in the global South. The climate crisis is playing out along colonial lines.

Climate breakdown is being caused by excess carbon emissions in the atmosphere. The safe planetary boundary for CO2 emissions is 350ppm, which was exceeded in the late 1980s. Not all countries are equally responsible for this overshoot, however.  Some countries have exceeded their fair share of the safe boundary, while others have not.

Recent research finds that the countries of the global North are responsible for 92% of the excess emissions that are driving climate breakdown.1 The two biggest contributors are the United States (40%), and the EU-28 (29%). Meanwhile, the global South, meaning all of Asia, Africa and Latin America, is responsible for only 8% of excess emissions. And this is from only a handful of countries: the majority of countries in the South remain within their fair share of the planetary boundary.

The atmosphere is a shared commons, on which all of us depend for our existence. The core economies have appropriated it for their own enrichment, with devastating consequences for all of life on Earth. 



This map shows the same data geographically. The nations in orange and red have exceeded their fair-shares of the planetary boundary, colonizing the atmospheric space that belongs to everyone else.2 The nations in green are still within their fair-shares, as of 2015, and have therefore contributed nothing to climate breakdown. This includes China, which as of 2015 had used 85% of its fair-share (but given the scale of China's current emissions, it is likely to have overshot this threshold in the years since). 

It is important to note that, while emissions are normally calculated at the national level, these figures obscure significant class inequalities within countries. Responsibility for excess emissions ultimately belongs to the wealthy classes who have high lifestyle emissions, who disproportionately control the system of production and distribution, and who wield disproportionate power over national policy (see our entry on carbon inequality).



But the impacts of climate breakdown are not evenly distributed. This map shows that the countries of the global South are disproportionately affected. In fact, the two maps are almost exact inversions of one another: the nations that have contributed the least to climate breakdown are most vulnerable to its impacts. This is due in part to geography, as the tropics are more vulnerable to the impacts of changing rainfall, heat and weather patterns. But it is also because structural adjustment programs and the rules of international trade and finance have prevented the sort of development that would allow them to mitigate some of these impacts. The data is from ND-GAIN, and covers vulnerability in terms of climate impacts on food, water, health, ecosystem services, human habitat and infrastructure.

This graph shows cumulative emissions since 1850 with respect to the planetary boundary of 350ppm. The global North as a group exceeded its fair share of this boundary in 1939, and has since overshot it by a factor of four. The global South as a group is still within its fair share. Note that this regional view requires caution, as overshooting countries in the South are compensated for by undershooting countries. 

Scholars and activists have long argued that the overshooting countries owe a "climate debt" to the undershooting countries, which should be reckoned in terms of reparations for losses and damages due to climate breakdown. This table shows which countries are the largest debtors.



This table shows countries that are still within their fair-share of the 350ppm boundary. These countries can be understood as "climate creditors".

Notes and references

1. Hickel, J. (2020). Quantifying national responsibility for climate breakdown: an equality-based attribution approach for carbon dioxide emissions in excess of the planetary boundary. The Lancet Planetary Health4(9), e399-e404.

2. Sultana, F. (2022). The unbearable heaviness of climate coloniality. Political Geography, 102638.