Representatives from 134 nations are gathered in Warsaw this week for the biannual exercise in dithering on the environment—otherwise known as the United Nations Climate Change Conference. But a glance at greenhouse gas emissions data collected by the Global Carbon Project, a non-profit research organization, shows that a summit of the Big Five polluters—China, the US, India, Russia and Japan—might be more effective at reaching a carbon accord. Those countries spewed 20,049 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2), into the atmosphere in 2012, or nearly 57% of total global emissions.
The data puts in sharp focus the abject failure of the two-decades-old UN climate talks to slow accelerating climate change. Global carbon emissions rose 2.1% last year, and while that sounds like a rather small increase, emissions are now 58% higher than in 1990. The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 by 191 nations, called for an average 5% reduction in global emissions below 1990 levels by 2012. “These  emissions were the highest in human history,” the Global Carbon Project report stated. “Emissions are projected to increase by 2.1% in 2013, to a record high.”
Coal remains the biggest climate culprit, accounting for 42% of carbon emissions in 2012. Not coincidentally, the five countries with the highest coal emissions are also the world’s five biggest carbon polluters.
While developed nations are responsible for the bulk of historical greenhouse gas emissions, the balance of blame is shifting rapidly with China and India’s voracious appetite for coal to fuel their expanding economies. In 1990, for instance, industrial countries were responsible for 62% of global carbon emissions; in 2012, 57% of emissions originated in developing countries. China and India alone accounted for a third of worldwide carbon emissions in 2012. Emissions from China jumped 71% last year while India’s emissions rose 21%. US emissions, on the other hand, decreased 26%, according to the Global Carbon Project.
When you look at emissions per person, the nations with the highest spew tend to be those with small populations and carbon-intensive economies—we’re talking about you, Australia, which has among the highest per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in the developed world. With a quarter of Germany’s population, Australia, for instance, emits twice as much carbon per person thanks to its reliance on coal and status as one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters.