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Asia holds key to CO2 emissions crisis

Published 14 June 2021 in Asian hub • 3 min read

The impact of CO2 emissions on climate change is one of the most urgent problems facing the world today, but any solution must focus on Asia. 

Ten Asian countries that we analyzed had 16,320 million tons (Mt) of CO2 emissions in 2019, almost 50% of the 36,441 Mt global total.  As we demonstrate, their economic growth comes at a very high ‘carbon cost’. Any solution to the global problem of CO2 emissions therefore has to be Asia-focused. 

The latest available country data from the International Energy Agency Global Carbon Atlas show that China was by far the biggest emitter of CO2 in 2019, with an emissions total of 10,175 Mt. It was followed by the United States with 5,285 Mt and India with 2,616 Mt. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a significant decline in global emissions in 2020, but the reduction appears to have been much more modest in China where restrictions occurred early in the year and lockdown measures were more time-limited.  

It is no surprise that the world’s biggest economies should be amongst the top emitters of CO2although there is not a simple link between GDP and C02 emissions —Russia and Iran are not among the world’s top 10 economies but occupy 4th and 6th places respectively in the global emissions table. 


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What is more striking is when we measure the ‘carbon cost’ of economic output, by calculating the amount of CO2 emissions (Mt) per trillion dollars of GDP. Of the ten largest economies in the world, India has the highest ‘carbon cost’ per unit of GDP, with every trillion dollars of GDP generating 880 Mt of CO2 emissions, whilst China is the second highest with 707 Mt. The four largest European economies, meanwhile, take the bottom four positions in this table, with France emitting just 117 Mt of CO2 per trillion dollars of GDP.  

When we repeat the exercise for ten of the largest Asian economies, the results are even more dramatic. These Asian economies have an average ‘carbon cost’ of 567 Mt per trillion dollars of GDP, around four times the average for the four largest economies in Western Europe. 

This would arguably matter less if these were countries with small populations, where the results could be seen to be less relevant on a global scale. But they are not. Five of the Asian countries each have a population greater than 100 million – two of them have more than a billion – and the ten together have a total population of 3.59 billion, almost half that of the entire planet. 

This clearly demonstrates that the solution to the global environmental challenge lies partly in shifting the emissions dial in Asia, through investment in infrastructure and renewable energy across the region. But this is not an impossible task. By virtue of their geography, the countries facing the highest increase in demand for electricity due to demographic change and rapid urbanisation also benefit from plentiful solar irradiation.  

The world needs economic growth to raise the living standards of all its’ people, especially those at the poorest end of the scale. It also needs careful stewardship to protect environmental quality and secure its’ future.  

A dash for economic growth, without due regard for the environment, cannot be the post-COVID model, but there need be no trade-off between growth, employment and the environment if renewable energy is placed at the heart of the plan – particularly in Asia. 


Nick Parsons

Head of Research and ESG at ThomasLloyd

Nick Parsons is Head of Research and ESG at ThomasLloydan impact investment company with extensive experience in Asia. The firm has been investing in renewable energy for over a decade and is one of the oldest and largest infrastructure investors in the Philippines, financing and constructing the country’s first utilityscale solar energy plant. 


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