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  • Writer's pictureJose Arrieta

How Much Money Does Your Country Produce per Ton of CO2?

“Ask yourself three questions:

1. What are the most important problems in your field?

2. Are you working on one of them?

3. Why not?” – Richard Hamming

At the time Hamming posed these questions, there would be variance in the answers. Today, it is hard for me to imagine that anyone can answer something that is not related to global warming. Just a side note, what we care about is global warming. Our climate already changed. Today, Mediterranean plants grow better in San Francisco and Germany than they do in their home countries. Green tea thrives in Switzerland. To reiterate, our climate changed already. Yet our globe keeps warming up. Back to our main topic. Global warming is the defining problem of our century. And just as inaction was the Achilles heel in the fight against racism in the last century, inaction is the main problem we face in the fight to turn back our global thermostat.

The first step in any fight is to research the enemy. Sun Tzu explains that “if [we] know our enemy and we know ourselves we need not fear the result of a hundred battles”. With regards to global warming, I can imagine that many of us overestimate our foe. At least, I did. Below I try to explain why.

We are all familiar with the idea of economic productivity and its summary statistic the Gross Domestic Product per capita. This measure explains how much money a country is able to produce per inhabitant. Below I plot this measure and also a related measure that I find helps me puts global warming into context.

The figure below plots the gross domestic product of all countries in the x-axis and the gross domestic product divided by the carbon footprint of that country on the y-axis. The measure in the y-axis, i.e. GPD/CO2 has the benefit of being an intensive measure at least in regards to population. It is what I see as a green-productivity measure.

The GPD/CO2 measure provides an estimate of how efficiently a society converts carbon dioxide into dollars. We can see for example that the top-performing nation, Lichtenstein (shown in purple), produces 138.3 k$/ton CO2. A whopping 300 higher efficiency of dollar production per ton of CO2 than Uzbekistan. Lichtenstein is even 100 times more efficient than Qatar, a country with a similar GPD per capita!

What impresses me the most about this graph is the breadth of efficiency at every point. For example, the brown vertical line shows the average GDP per capita of the world. Close to it we have my home nation, Costa Rica, at 7k$ per ton of CO2, below we have Turkey close to the world average of 2.5k$ per ton of CO2, and much lower we have Russia and Trinidad and Tobago. All these countries have similar GPD per capita but one is 15 times more efficient at converting CO2 into dollars.

The second striking fact is the U-shape of the graph. Clearly rich countries can afford measures to decrease their carbon footprint. But it is impressive that poverty has a similar effect in decreasing the use of CO2. It is impressive to see that Somalia, Chad, and Rwanda have similar efficiency to Sweden, Ireland, and Switzerland!


The data for this graph is freely available. From the following two links:

A bit of cleaning is needed because some countries do not have GDP or CO2 measures for all years. What I do is save the latest GDP or CO2 measure on record as the country's value. This is not perfect but I provide back-of-the-envelope calculations here, nothing more. Below, I attach the data and script used to create the graph.

Download ZIP • 10KB

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