A measure known as CO2 emissions per capita calculates the carbon emissions (tonnes) per person in a particular country by dividing the country’s population by the national CO2 emissions. In the same study, conducted by the International Energy Information Administration (IEIA), showed that in 2009 South Africa’s CO2 tonnes per capita was 9.11 placing it well above the global average of 4.49 tonnes COfor 2009.

But what does this measure actually mean and how is it a useful indication of South Africa’s carbon profile? In some ways it can be the most important measure for understanding a country’s carbon profile in the same way that GDP per capita is used as a measure of how rich a country is. In general countries with higher populations have higher total CO2 emissions e.g. due to the number of households that need to be electrified. This is one of the reasons why the most populous countries, India and China, are both among the top 5 emitters in the world.

The CO2 emissions per capita ranking is slightly different from total carbon emissions. Many small island countries have among the highest CO2 emissions per capita with the British overseas territory Gibralter topping the list at 151.96 CO2 emissions per capita in 2009.  The U.S Virgin Islands was second (113.71) with Gulf nation Qatar at third (79.82) and Netherlands Antilles (51.26) and Bahrain (42.68) rounding off the top 5.

Of the major world economies Australia was placed 13th (19.64) in 2009, Saudi Arabia 15th (18.56) and the USA 17th (17.67). Netherlands is the EU’s highest placed country at number 22 (14.89) and China is 76th (5.83).

South Africa is 46th on the list and ahead of countries like Denmark, Japan, United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, France, Iran, China and India. Africa’s next placed country is Libya at number 50 (8.7). The graph below shows the BRIC countries and the USA in relation to the global CO2 emissions per capita average.

Much of the South African population still does not participate in the formal economy and as a result it is likely that South Africa’s emissions per capita will increase as the population becomes more affluent.

It should be noted that other GHGs have not been included in the IEIA data.