A New Year’s Resolution on the US’s Climate Hypocrisy

This analysis covers US emissions compared to lower-income countries. For a similar analysis of UK emissions, see my companion piece here.

In 2022, discussions will continue about the role that development finance has in both reducing energy poverty in poorer countries and tackling climate change. At COP26 there was lots of handwringing by rich countries about the extent to which aid (ODA) and other development finance should finance fossil fuels in poorer countries. On the one hand, it is obvious that poorer countries need to dramatically increase their energy use in order to attain a higher standard of living. On the other hand, with the climate emergency growing in urgency, some policymakers argue that it is perverse to fund any fossil fuel projects abroad, especially when poorer countries will be hardest hit by climate change. Some proposed projects—such as a pipeline transporting gas from Uganda to Tanzania ports—have faced strident criticism.

Underpinning this discussion should be an acknowledgement that there is vast inequality in energy use, and CO2 emissions, between richer and poorer countries. Just a few days of life in the US produces more emissions than people in many low-income countries produce in the entire year. The CO2 emissions of the average US citizen are estimated to be over 100 times that of the average Ugandan. If these emissions are spread evenly throughout the year, this means that last Tuesday, the average American had already emitted more CO2 than the average Ugandan will over the whole year.

In fact, on the first day of the year, the average American had already emitted more CO2 than the average person living in Democratic Republic of Congo, and—one week in—had surpassed annual emissions for 23 low-income countries. By Monday, the US’s average emissions will have surpassed annual emissions of Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, and Cameroon, all (lower) middle-income countries.

Figure 1. At what date will average US persons’ 2022 emissions surpass annual emissions of other countries?

Source: World Bank Data

Where there are good opportunities to use aid to promote cleaner energy at the same time as fighting poverty, they should be taken. But the fact that people in the US emit more CO2 in a couple of days than many low-income countries (LICs) do in a year suggests that the opportunities to reduce CO2 emissions in LICs are minimal, given that there are so few to begin with and that there are such dire energy needs. As colleagues have found previously, LICs could build many more gas pipelines and still comprise only a tiny share of global emissions.

At COP26, a group of donor countries formed to pledge that no more development finance would be provided for fossil fuels of any type. While this was celebrated by some activists, it sits uneasily with the continued use of fossil fuel subsidies from the same countries, not to mention current plans to allow further drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

This hypocrisy has been noticed by several leaders of the Global South. These high-income donor countries could have a greater impact by pledging to eliminate their own fossil fuel use. This would also save a lot more money: these countries collectively spent around $56 billion on subsidising production or consumption of fossil fuels, whereas stopping development finance for fossil fuel projects will reportedly save $19 billion. It may be politically more difficult, but climate action should begin at home.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.