UK, US, China: how the world’s carbon ‘centre of gravity’ moved over 200 years – The Guardian

A new Guardian visualisation reveals how the “centre of gravity” of global emissions has moved over the past 200 years.

The analysis shows how the geographic centre of the world’s carbon emissions used to sit directly atop the UK before being pulled westwards by the US and back towards the east by the rise of China.

The ‘centre of gravity’ of global emissions

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REPLAY

The carbon centre of gravity is calculated by taking an average of each country’s latitude and longitude, weighted by their annual emissions. The most polluting countries exert the strongest gravitational pull on the centre of emissions.

At the beginning of the 20th century the industrial powerhouses of the US, UK and north-western Europe were responsible for the majority of emissions. By the end of the second world war, the global centre of emissions was located a mere 25 miles off the east coast of the US.

Since then, rising industrialisation in Asia – led by China – has dragged the centre of emissions more than 7,000 miles eastwards. It is now located on the Tibetan plateau in western China.

This representation should not be interpreted as suggesting that the population of China produces a disproportionate amount of CO2. On a per-capita basis, 36 countries had higher carbon emissions in 2020.

But the centre of gravity does highlight the importance of getting large emitters such as the US and China to commit to stronger climate policies at the Cop26 summit.

New modelling from the International Energy Agency suggests carbon emissions have peaked in the world’s wealthiest economies –⁠ including in Europe and the US –⁠ but are likely to rise in less developed countries over the next decade. This is under a stated policies scenario, which considers current and announced climate policies from governments around the world.

How might carbon emissions develop in the next ten years?

Historic and modelled carbon emissions (trillion tonnes of CO2)

Source: IEA. The ‘stated policies’ scenario is not a forecast but provides a sense of the direction in which existing and announced policies take the energy sector

China, which has pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2060, might still emit 11.4tn tonnes of CO2 in 2030 – a slight increase on the level recorded in 2020. In Africa, emissions could rise by a quarter over the next 10 years, reflecting strong population growth and better standards of living. Emissions in India would increase 43%.

To limit global warming to 2C, governments would need to drastically raise their ambition, shutting fossil fuel power plants while ramping up investment in renewable energy and electric cars.

Methodology

The emissions centre of gravity was computed using country-level data from the Global Carbon Project. Figures for 2020 are estimates based on growth rates from Carbon Monitor.

With thanks to the data team of the Economist who shared their method on how to calculate the weighted average of a set of latitude/longitude pairs.

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