If we humans were to have a collective hobby, it’d probably be ‘polluting the heck outta stuff’. As a species we chuck so much stuff into the atmosphere that there are arguably no pollution-free places left on Earth. Every year car exhausts, coal plants, forest fires and cow farts (seriously) wind up choking our atmosphere and heading the planet towards what we’re gonna call Climate-ageddon.
But who’s really to blame for this planet-sized catastrophe? Well, it’s hard to tell, exactly. If you measure pollution per capita, then Canada is far and away the biggest emitter. On the other hand, if you measure environmental impact in terms of those killed by pollution, then the tiny nation of Georgia outstrips even China. On the other hand, if you look at it in terms of actual greenhouse house gas emissions, then there is one clear winner… scroll down to see it. But first, the 10 worst polluters in real terms, according to the Global Carbon Atlas.
10. Canada (557 mtCO2 emitted per year)
The second biggest nation on Earth, Canada is essentially an icy wilderness ringed by a tiny human population clinging desperately to its slightly-less frozen parts. It’s a land of virgin forest, desolate mountain ranges, crystal blue lakes, and enough pollution to suffocate a herd of buffalo. Sorry, what?
Yep, despite its squeaky-clean image, Canada is actually kinda dirty. And we don’t mean in the way yo momma is. Like the weed-addicted younger brother of America’s beer-swilling older sibling, Canada is puffing out more clouds of smoke than even the biggest bong-addict. Want the numbers? In 2015, Canada sent 557 mtCO2 (million tonnes of CO2) spewing into the air, from a population of 35.9 million. For comparison, the 11th biggest polluter, Indonesia, sent 537 mtCO2 into the atmosphere from a population of over a quarter of a billion. And these guys have deadly annual smogs that have killed 100,000 people.
Yet Canada may not keep its less-than-coveted 10th ranking for long. In October 2016, the government signed up for a carbon tax plan that could put the country on a path to a cleaner economy. Failing that, Indonesia’s pollution output is increasing like mad, so they’re probably about to overtake North America’s answer to Denmark pretty soon anyway.
9. South Korea (592 mtCO2 emitted per year)
On a peninsula half-occupied by the country of a demented fat man armed with nuclear weapons, South Korea can seem like a breath of fresh air. It’s clean, safe, modern, rich… and very, very dirty. Yeah, that ‘breath of fresh air’ we just mentioned? That was only metaphorical. Visit Seoul in spring, and it can feel like you’re trying to outdo your uncle’s four-pack-a-day habit with a single breath.
Partly, this is China’s fault. The neighboring super-polluter sends its toxic gunk spewing over both Koreas like an annoying kid repeatedly chucking his carcinogenic deathball into your yard. But the Global Carbon Atlas doesn’t track pollution caused by other countries. Plenty of Seoul’s clean air problems come from the Republic of Korea itself. As NPR has pointed out, the country is powered by 50 coal plants, with more on their way. Then there’s the sheer size of their capital. Seoul has a bigger population than New York or London, and everyone’s driving cars. For comparison, dystopian nightmare LA recorded 7 days of air ranked ‘unhealthy’ in 2015. Seoul recorded 53.
So what’s South Korea doing to tackle this problem? Umm, nothing actually. They’re one of the few countries in smog-choked Asia Pacific that are increasing their carbon output.
8. Saudi Arabia (601 mtCO2 emitted per year)
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) the Saudi capital of Riyadh is one of the most polluted cities on Earth. Even Beijing doesn’t rank so highly in terms of horrifying stuff that’ll get into your lungs and make you feel like you’ve swallowed a cheese grater. While some of this is thanks to stuff beyond human control – namely, the region’s terrifying sandstorms – plenty can be laid squarely at the feet of the ruling classes. Across Saudi Arabia, industrial waste is let into the environment like it’s going outta fashion.
Part of this may be to do with the fact that the Wahhabist kingdom is a petro-state that bungs its 31 million citizens subsidized gas. Until recently, you could fill-up a medium-sized car from empty for about $7. While prices have gone up, that’s still a massive incentive to drive everywhere. Add lax rules with industrial waste and plenty of oil flowing, and it all adds up to a state where ‘environmental concerns’ are ranked by the government as a slightly lower priority than ‘literally anything else’.
Like South Korea, Saudi Arabia is not interested in cutting its current output by much. Although they signed up to a 50% clean energy target a while back, this was recently reduced to only 10%.
7. Iran (648 mtCO2 emitted per year)
A short hop over the Persian Gulf from Riyadh, and you arrive in one of the planet’s other super-polluters. The Islamic Republic of Iran is home to Ahvaz, a city with the unfortunate claim to fame of being literally the most polluted place on Earth. Air quality is so poor in this city of a million that the WHO can’t even measure how dangerous it is. Their official scale calls any place with over 20 micrograms of tiny, health-destroying PM10 particles per cubic meter of air a hazard. Ahvaz has over 372 micrograms of PM10s per cubic meter. You might as well just wire your lungs up to a sewage pipe as breathe this stuff.
But it’s not just Ahvaz. All across Iran, from Tehran to Qom, blankets of smog severely screw with people’s lives. In November 2016, all the capital’s schools had to be shut down due to clouds of killer fumes strangling the city. We aren’t using the word ‘killer’ lightly. Over 400 people died from the pollution in just 23 days.
Aside from a reliance on petrochemical industries, one big reason for Iran’s bad air is the sanctions placed on it following the Islamic Revolution. Fume-belching cars and low-grade fuel were all anyone could afford for decades, contributing to the current situation.
6. Germany (798 mtCO2 emitted per year)
So, we’re probably all pretty surprised to see Germany on this list. The economic powerhouse of the EU, Germany is also supposed to be unfailingly clean and efficient. Which it totally is… provided you just concentrate on visible dirt. Focus on those pesky invisible PM10s, and wandering through Germany’s cities is like stepping into a blizzard of flying death.
Stuttgart, for example, has been called “Germany’s Beijing”. While you won’t get the same clouds of smog you get in China, you’ll still get pretty unhealthy air. Hazardous particles exceeded the legal limit for 64 days in 2014, more than Seoul and Los Angeles combined. Elsewhere, things are just as bad. 28 areas of Germany, including Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, have levels of air pollution considered dangerous. In 2013 alone, hazardous amounts of nitrogen dioxide were estimated to have killed over 10,600 Germans.
Things have gotten so bad that the EU recently threatened to hit Germany with a hefty fine if it didn’t clean up its act (literally). Not that they can really talk. Taken as a single nation, the EU would be the 3rd biggest polluter on Earth.
5. Japan (1,237 mtCO2 emitted per year)
Leaping upwards a few hundred million tonnes of CO2 per year, orderly Japan emits enough bad gas per annum to make it Asia Pacific’s 2nd biggest polluter. Man, what is it with these supposedly clean countries and terrible air quality?
Actually, we’re being pretty unkind here. Japan may be a high-level emitter today, but it’s a squeaky-clean utopia compared to what came before. In the 1960s, Japan was what China is now: a smog-choked industrial powerhouse that was raking in billions, even as it killed hundreds of thousands of its citizens with horrifically unsafe air. Some pollution-related illnesses, such as Minamata Disease, are still known globally after the Japanese cities where they were first identified. It was only after a massive push to curb emissions in the 1970s that Japan started its slow climb down from smog-filled dystopia to the relatively clean place it is today.
In fact, things would likely be even better, were it not for Japan’s recent reliance on coal fired power stations. 2014 was the country’s second-worst year for emissions on record. For that, you can thank the Fukushima disaster of 2011. The only nuclear disaster in history to come within touching distance of Chernobyl, it resulted in nearly all of Japan’s nuclear plants being shut down and replaced with coal fired ones.
4. Russian Federation (1,617 mtCO2 emitted per year)
If you need an illustration of how polluted Russia is, look no further than the town of Karabash. A small town 100 miles north of Kazakhstan, Karabash is home to only 13,000 people… possibly because no one else is fundamentally insane enough to live there. The river water is orange. The lake is dead and red. A mile-long ridge of black slag runs through the town. The air is so nasty it causes your eyes to sting and your throat to burn. Children have multiple birth defects. In 1996, the government declared it a disaster zone.
Of course, most Russians don’t live in a city even remotely approaching this bleak state. But even in the richer, western cities, things can still get bad. Moscow occasionally records pollution at ‘especially dangerous’ levels, and, in 2010, was hit by a suffocating smog more like something you’d see in Beijing. Still, it’s the Siberian industrial towns that are really to blame for Russia’s impact on climate change.
Interestingly, the Kremlin doesn’t seem too bothered about combatting this. Although Moscow announced a recent carbon reduction plan, some analysts have said it’ll actually increase emissions in the long term.
3. India (2,274 mtCO2 emitted per year)
When you’re emitting as much gunk into the air as Russia and Iran combined, you know you’ve got a problem. At least, you probably should. But India is something else. Home to five of the world’s most polluted cities, its insane population levels are contributing to an ecological bomb that could threaten the entire region. It’s estimated that up to 1.2 million people die in India each year due to air pollution. That’s equivalent to the entire population of Prague dropping dead every 12 months.
Although India has signed up to cut emissions and move towards clean energy, economists are asking whether this will be possible in a practical sense. India’s economy is booming, but it’s still a long, long way behind even China in terms of supplying a decent standard of living for its poorest citizens. Hundreds of millions still lack electricity. Tens of millions are stuck in poverty so dire most of us can’t even imagine it. Central to India’s recent economic gains have been its reliance on cheap, atmosphere-destroying coal. Take that away, and Delhi worries it will be condemning its citizens to an eternity of moneyless misery.
On the other hand, India is also one of the countries that will be most affected by climate change, with its coastal cities being flooded and crops destroyed. Huh. Some choice.
2. USA (5,414 mtCO2 emitted per year)
Sorry to any frat bros out there hoping to start up a chant of “USA! USA!” when America snagged the top spot. The good ol’ US-of-A ain’t even close to being the planet’s number one emitter. That’s not to say they’re a slouch, though. With over 5,000 million tonnes of CO2 being released into the atmosphere each year, the USA is laying into the atmosphere with more gusto than nearly any other country on Earth.
“But hang on,” you may be thinking, “the US doesn’t have any of the post-apocalyptic pollution wastelands you’ve written about for most other entries.” Well, no, maybe not. But that doesn’t mean bad stuff isn’t happening. A 2016 report by the American Lung Association found more than half the country’s population lives at risk of breathing in dangerous air pollution. That’s 166 million Americans at risk of asthma, cancer, heart disease and reproductive problems, all thanks to the air they’re breathing.
To be fair, the US’s air problems don’t all start in Washington. The smog in Western states frequently starts life in China and India, before drifting into the USA and causing misery for millions. Still, America isn’t totally innocent. According to the Global Carbon Atlas, it’s still one of the biggest emitters, however you cut it. Yet even this pollution behemoth has nothing on…
1. China (10,357 mtCO2 emitted per year)
Be honest: you saw this coming, didn’t you? No other country on Earth emits as much smoggy nastiness as China. If the USA, India, Russia and Japan were all to suddenly decide to conglomerate into a single state (we’re not exactly sure why or how), that new super-nation would still only be emitting the same amount of greenhouse gas as China. If polluting was an Olympic sport, China would bring home gold every single time.
You hardly need us to repeat all the stories of China’s toxic air. The deadly smogs that suffocate entire regions. The impenetrable haze that makes seeing more than a few meters in front of your face an impossibility in Beijing. The studies that have compared breathing the country’s air to being as bad for you as smoking. It’s all grim stuff that’s pretty well known.
But hey, at least China signed up to the Paris Agreement, right? And Beijing seems pretty down with combating this whole ‘toxic air’ thing. Not quite. Recent data has shown that China’s air crisis is actually getting worse as time goes by. Expect them to stay at #1 for some time yet.