In September 2019, the Global Climate Change Strike saw about 7.6 million people in 185 countries take to the streets. People from all over the world joined forces to protest against prevailing climate injustices that continue to propagate global warming. More than half of the protesters were in Europe.
In 2015, the leaders of 196 countries came together in Paris to map practical steps to curb global warming. The result was the negotiation and formation of the Paris Agreement, designed to limit the increase of global temperatures to below 20Celcius.
The Paris Agreement was followed by the establishment of national plans and targets primarily to reduce CO2 emission levels. Yet, in the four years since the Paris Agreement was formed, CO2 emissions have continued to rise. At the current rate, 2019 will reach near-record high CO2 Emission levels.
What are CO2 Emissions and why are they a Problem?
The increased concentration of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) in the atmosphere is what leads to global warming. These gases trap heat energy within the earth’s atmosphere and prevent solar radiation from escaping into space and thus increasing the earth’s temperature through a phenomenon known as the Greenhouse effect.
There are four gases in the atmosphere that are classified as Green House Gases. These are Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (N2O) and Fluorinated Gases. Fluorinated gases include Ozone (O3), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) and Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) among others. Water vapour is also a potent GHG. However, we usually overlook water since the increased global temperatures lead to more vapour, rather than direct human activity.
GHGs have always been part of our atmosphere. However, their levels have been rising critically since the beginning of the industrial revolution. At lower concentrations, GHGs are useful for regulating the earth’s average temperature. Without GHGs, NASA estimates that the earth’s average temperature could drop to – 180C which would be a drastic shift from its current level of about 140C. A 32-degree drop in average temperatures would threaten the existence of life on earth.
Carbon Dioxide represents the lion’s share of GHGs. In 2015, the Center For Climate And Energy Solutions reported that CO2 represented 76% of the GHG in the Atmosphere. By 2017, Carbon Dioxide represented about 82% of the GHGs. This data shows that CO2 emissions are the most significant drivers of the greenhouse effect and global warming. As such, most of the policies aimed at controlling global warming are designed to reduce CO2 emissions.
How Are CO2 Emissions Generated
Traditionally, regular activities such as respiration, burning firewood and decay of organic matter were the primary producers of CO2. Trees and plants absorb and regulate CO2 levels naturally. The plants and trees retain the carbon in CO2 and release oxygen back into the atmosphere. As such, we refer to forests and large vegetated areas as carbon sinks.
Burning fossil fuels is the primary contributor to the generation of excessive amounts of CO2. Fossil fuels are made up of decayed compressed organic matter that has built up for thousands of years. This organic matter was trapped safely within the earth’s crust until humans discovered its energy potential. In an instant, burning fossil fuels releases carbon that has been accumulated over several centuries.
In the 1800s, people began burning fossil fuels to strengthen industrial developments. As the industrial revolution picked up speed, so did the rate of CO2 generated. The 1850s marked the first time that the CO2 levels did not revert to their previously balanced levels. This change was because humans began producing CO2 faster than it could be absorbed. Since then, global CO2 levels have continued to rise in response to the extensive use of Coal, Oil and Gas.
Global CO2 Ranking
Carbon dioxide emissions characteristically have a long lifetime. Once emitted, CO2 can continue absorbing heat in the atmosphere for more than 1,000 years. GHGs tend to diffuse in the atmosphere and are not concentrated above the regions where they were generated.
There are several ways to evaluate the regional impact of CO2 emissions on the climate. In this article, we will consider the following three methods to assess regional CO2 emissions
- Current CO2 emissions
- Per capita CO2 emissions
- Cumulative CO2 emissions
Current CO2 Emissions
In 2017, a total of 36.153 GtCO2 was generated in the world. Three top countries, China, USA and India, cause about 48% of these emissions. The list below shows the top five CO2 producers in 2017 and their emissions levels in Gigatonnes (Gt).
- China 9.839Gt
- USA 5.270Gt
- India 2.467Gt
- Russia 1.693Gt
- Japan 1.205Gt
China overtook the USA as the leading producer of CO2 emissions globally in 2006. The country has consistently generated more CO2 emissions than the USA and EU-28 combined since 2011. In 2017 the EU-28 countries collectively produced 3.544 GtCO2.
The bulk of China’s carbon emissions are because they use coal-fired power plants. The upsurge in China’s CO2 emission levels come as a result of the country’s rapid industrialization. It has taken about 35 years for China to rise from an agrarian to an industrial society.
From a Regional viewpoint, Asia generated about 46.7% of the global carbon emissions in 2017. North America came in second with 17.5% while Europe collectively produced 15.7%. The list below shows the top five regions according to the total CO2 emissions in 2017.
- Asia 16.918Gt
- North America 6.333Gt
- Europe 5.693Gt
- Middle East 2.672Gt
- Africa 1.332Gt
Per Capita CO2 Emission
Classifying the carbon emissions of a region based on political boundaries only tells one side of the story. A region’s CO2 emissions responsibility is better represented as a function of its population. That is dividing the total CO2 emissions by the population of the area to find the data per capita. This system of measurement shows the amount of CO2 emissions attributed to each individual.
Despite its high carbon emission levels, China’s rank is 52nd on the global rating with 7tCO2 per capita because China is home to close to 20% of the world’s population. Yet, each person in the EU-28 region collectively generates the same carbon emissions as in China with 7tCO2 per capita.
Holding the 11th position, the USA produces 16 tCO2 per capita. Of the top 3 CO2 producers, the USA has the highest CO2 levels per capita. The third highest producer of CO2 in 2017, India, is ranked 133rd with 1.8 tCO2 per capita.
The highest-ranked country under this system of classification is Qatar, with 49 tCO2 per capita. The second is Curacao, followed by Trinidad and Tobago. Below is a list of the top five CO2 producers per capita according to the 2017 global carbon atlas reports.
- Qatar 49t
- Curacao 39t
- Trinidad and Tobago 30t
- Kuwait 25t
- United Arab Emirates 25t
Cumulative CO2 Emissions
To get a clearer idea of each country’s actual contribution to global warming, it helps to look at the bigger picture. CO2 emissions continuously absorb energy for more than 1,000 years after being emitted in the atmosphere. With this in mind, CO2 emissions from as far back as 1,000 AD should still have an impact on our current climate.
In effect, it is worth evaluating countries based on their lifetime contribution of CO2 emissions. Gauging a country’s current emissions on the backdrop of their lifetime emissions can draw a clearer picture of its global warming responsibility.
Carbon emissions data can be evaluated back to 1750 when humans started burning fossil fuels. Historical CO2 emissions are estimated based on the fossil fuel production data of each region.
The data shows that the USA is the all-time leading contributor to CO2 emissions in the world with 397Gt. China is second, and the former Soviet Union is third. The list below shows the top five all-time CO2 generators in the world and their lifetime carbon emissions.
- USA 397.157Gt
- China 213.843Gt
- Former USSR 179.966Gt
- Germany 89.661Gt
- UK 77.761Gt
When assessing the regional impact of CO2 emissions, it is valuable to have a broad view. While CO2 emissions have a global impact, they are caused by regional and local actions.
The transport and energy sectors represent 29% and 28% of the carbon emissions generated in 20175. The industry was responsible for about 22%, while the commercial and residential areas generated 12%. The agricultural sector of the global economy generated only 9% of the 2017 carbon emissions.
Many countries are adopting the use of cleaner fuels, electric and hybrid vehicles, and more efficient transportation systems. These nations are well on their way to reducing their carbon emissions sustainably. Integration of renewable energy systems in power generation has also made a significant impact when reducing carbon emissions of leading developed countries such as the UK. However, there is a need to consider ramping up carbon-negative solutions if the countries will meet the Paris Agreement targets.