But historical emissions, like per capita emissions, are a bone of contention in haggling between countries trying to reach a climate deal in Copenhagen this December. Developing countries argue that any CO2 cuts agreed by developed countries at Copenhagen should incorporate the principle of historical responsibility. In other words, the rich should pay in the near future for its considerable past contributions to global warming.
Data from 1900-2004 supports such an argument, when you keep in mind the size of countries’ populations. The US has the biggest historical share (314,772m metric tonnes of carbon dioxide), while European countries such as Germany (73,625) and the UK (55,163) cast a shadow over developing nations such as India (25,054), Brazil (9,136) and Indonesia (6,167). China is on 89,243.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that many developed countries’ share of emissions go back before this data begins. As the leader of the industrial revolution, the UK in particular was responsible for significant carbon emissions in the 19th century.
To get a sense of how such emission debts are influencing the Copenhagen negotiations, consider the rationale given by Yu Qingtai, China’s climate change ambassador, when explaining that China would not drop its demands for tough CO2 cuts from developed countries: “We have all along believed that due to the historical responsibility of the developed nations, they must continue to take the lead with large reductions beyond 2012.” Some commentators say that if social justice is to be achieved at Copenhagen, it’s impossible to argue against rich countries paying for their historic responsibility.