is France really a minor polluter on a global scale?

“France ‘weighs nothing’ in global CO2 emissions, ‘it is up to China to act’ …” While COP27 is in full swing in Egypt, voices are being heard in France exposing these remarks as arguments to exempt themselves from the fight against climate change. If France is actually responsible for only 1% of the world’s carbon dioxide, this omits some of the emissions and minimizes the country’s historical responsibility.

“Humanity has a choice, cooperate or die. It’s a climate solidarity pact or a collective suicide pact.” Faced with the hundred heads of state and government gathered in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the start of COP27, the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, once again raised the alarm on Monday 7 November, stressing the urgent need to act in a coordinated way against climate change.

To these appeals, some in France regularly brandish the same argument: the country is responsible for just under 1% of CO2 emissions.2 world, so any effort it would make to limit greenhouse gas emissions would be futile. Instead, the focus should be on the biggest polluters, with China and India at the forefront. A constantly repeated reasoning on social networks, but which also penetrates the political discourse. “We must not sacrifice French industry on the altar of the fight against global warming. The Americans and the Chinese begin”, thus launched the far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour, in February 2022, to the microphone of France Inter, when he was a candidate in the elections French presidential elections. “In fact, we would reduce France until it was wiped off the globe, the effect would be zero”, he also assured him. on TwitterOctober 28, Dominique Reynié, professor at Sciences-Po Paris and CEO of the Foundation for Political Innovation (Fondapol).

“We know this by heart. It is selfish reasoning, which amounts to waiting for others to do things for us,” complains climatologist Jean Jouzel. In a study published by the University of Cambridge in July 2020, a team of climatologists, psychologists and sociologists thus classified this “àquoibonisme” as they call it, in the list of “twelve excuses for climate inaction”, along with other notes. refrains like “it’s already too late” or “if we lower our emissions first, other countries will benefit.”

“This 1% does not represent our true carbon footprint”

On paper, the argument is based on a truth. In 2020, according to data from the Global Carbon Project, an international consortium of scientists, France was responsible for 0.9% of global CO2 emissions.2. The country ranked 21And ranking of the issuing countries with 277 million tons of CO2. China and the United States lead the ranking, with 27% and 14% of global emissions respectively.

“But this figure has to be cleared,” insists Jean Jouzel. First, because this 1% does not represent our true carbon footprint. This figure takes into account only the territorial emissions, i.e. CO2 released only in our territory “.

To have a fairer view, we need to add all emissions related to the import of goods or services produced abroad, such as electronic objects.

But on this issue, France is far from being a model student. Deindustrialization and globalization oblige, imported emissions have increased by 78% since 1995, according to a report by the High Climate Council (HCC) presented in October 2020. Taking these data into account, the institution estimates, for the ‘year 2019, the share of CO emissions2 of France not 0.9% but 1.5%. “For the year 2020, the figure is more difficult to estimate due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” notes Corinne Le Quérré, president of the HCC.

In France, 10 tons of CO2 per inhabitant

And if this share still seems low compared to the Chinese or American mastodons, “we must not forget the great differences in scale in terms of population”, continues Jean Jouzel. “To fully understand the situation, it is essential to look at the scale of an inhabitant”, insists the climatologist. China is certainly the first issuing country, but it is also the most populous, with 1.4 billion inhabitants, or 18% of the Earth’s population.

So, if we focus exclusively on territorial emissions, France can boast of spending only 4.4 tons of CO2 per capita, at the same level as the world average. The country is therefore 78And in the ranking of countries with the highest CO emissions2. In the lead is Qatar, with 41 tons of CO2 per inhabitant. The United States is 11And rank (with 16 tons per inhabitant). China drops to 50And world ranking, with 7.3 tons of CO2 per inhabitant.

But the situation becomes darker for France when the other greenhouse gases are added, in particular methane, responsible for a third of global warming since the pre-industrial era. The country then goes to 6.5 tons of emissions per capita in 2019, notes the HCC. And if we add imported emissions, the French carbon footprint therefore rises to 10 tons of CO2 per inhabitant. “France therefore remains far from the declared target of falling below the 2 tonnes per inhabitant threshold by 2050,” says Corrine Le Quéré.

>> Also read on France 24: Climate: record of methane emissions, a gas “much more harmful than CO2

Even more speaking, according to a calculation by the think tank Global Footprint Network, if all of humanity consumed as many resources as a Frenchman, it would take 2.7 planets like Earth to meet our needs, compared to 2.2 planets for a Chinese. and 5 for an American.

“A cumulative phenomenon”

“Most importantly, climate change is a cumulative problem,” recalls the president of the HCC. “The emissions accumulated in the past matter as much as those of today and those of the future.” Since 1750, France has released around 38 billion tons of CO2, making it responsible for 2.38% of total global emissions. The United States is the country that has accumulated the most (25.29%) followed by China (14%). South Africa or Brazil, for example, barely accumulate 1%.

“This then gives us historical responsibility,” says the French-Canadian climatologist. “Above all because it is not only France, but all of Europe that are interested”. Germany, which released 92 billion tons of CO2 since 1750 rank 4And ranking of the largest historical polluters, followed by the United Kingdom.


“On this historical responsibility, some sometimes argue that it is unfair that young people pay for the mistakes of the past. Of course, but there is no other solution”, insists Jean Jouzel. “Climate change is now inevitable. Past emissions cannot be recovered. The only thing that can be done is to limit future ones.”

“And France is a rich and developed country that has more capacity to act than others, continues Corinne Le Quéré. While it was on the initiative of the Paris Accords, it must now lead by example in climate action.

“But, despite the efforts of several years, the country still seems far from achieving this goal”, complains the climatologist. Its emissions fell by only 1% on average between 2015 and 2018, more slowly than its German or British neighbors, for example. In particular, an energy mix still too dependent on fossil fuels and the delayed development of renewable energies are in question.


Finally, the last argument made by the two climatologists: France simply has an interest in acting as it is itself confronted with the effects of climate change, as the successive heatwaves that hit the country this summer recalled. Drought.

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