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, mostly from burning fossil fuels. The safe planetary boundary for CO2 emissions is 350ppm, which was exceeded in 1988. 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.

The two biggest contributors to excess emissions are the United States (38%) and the EU-28 (28%). Together with the rest of the global North, they are collectively responsible for 85%. China is responsible for 2%. Meanwhile, the rest of the global South, meaning all of Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia, is responsible for only 11% of excess emissions. And this is from only a handful of countries: the majority of countries in the South remain within their fair shares of the planetary boundary. These results are based on a study published in The Lancet Planetary Health, updated with emissions data through 2019.1

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 2019, and have therefore contributed nothing to climate breakdown. 

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 map shows the number of people who could be exposed to extreme heat in each country, in a scenario where global warming reaches 2.7 degrees, according to research published in Nature Sustainability. This is our current policy trajectory. Nearly 2 billion people are likely to be exposed to extreme heat in this scenario. The overwhelming majority (99.73%) of extreme heat exposure will be suffered in the periphery. In India, more than 600 million people could be affected.

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 1944, and has since overshot it by a factor of six. The global South as a group is still within its fair share. 

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. The data presented on this page are derived from the method originally developed in: 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). Here we have updated the results through 2019, using data produced for: Fanning, A. and J. Hickel (2023), Compensation for atmospheric appropriation, Nature Sustainability. We also use the North-South classification from the latter paper (where the global North includes the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, Russia, the EU-28 and the other "advanced" economies of Europe, according to the IMF definition). Note that the figures on this page differ slightly from the figures in Fanning and Hickel, as here we use population shares from 1850-2019, whereas the latter uses population shares based on 1850-2050 (i.e., including projected populations).

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