Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions — Facts and Figures

In the first installment of this series, I reviewed U.S. and global oil reserves according to the 2012 BP Statistical Review of World Energy. The second installment covered oil production, and the third looked at global consumption trends. Today, I look at the growth of global carbon dioxide emissions since 1965. A great deal has changed over the past 46 years.

Major Worldwide Growth in CO2 Emissions

In the U.S., the public is bombarded with messages about climate change. One may get the impression that if we only stop the next pipeline and slow down the growth of Canada’s oil sands, we are one step closer to victory. But this is really akin to fighting a small local skirmish while a war rages on the other side of the globe. But the skirmish does not change the outcome of the war. I am going to take up this theme in a follow-up column, but for now let’s examine what’s going on in the world.

First, here is the global carbon dioxide emissions picture:

The graph shows that the growth rate in emissions over the past decade is faster than that of previous decades — indicating carbon dioxide emissions have accelerated in recent years. Prior to 2002, the incremental annual increase had never reached 1 billion new metric tons of carbon dioxide. Since 2002, 1 billion incremental tons have been added three times: In 2003, 2004, and 2010.

In fact, 2010’s addition of 1.58 billion new tons globally is the largest annual increase on record. The incremental increase over the past decade was at least 0.87 billion new tons on 4 other occasions. Only once during the decade — in 2009 in response to recession — was there a measured year-to-year decrease.

Breakdown by Region

One reason I think climate change advocacy has been so ineffective is that most advocates are misinformed about the present mixture of global carbon emissions. The next figure tells the tale:

This figure closely resembles the coal graph from World Energy Consumption Facts, Figures, and Shockers because in fact global coal consumption is the largest contributor to rising carbon dioxide emissions. Asia Pacific is the source of 45% of global carbon dioxide emissions, and is on a growth trajectory to reach 50% by the end of the decade. In the U.S., coal consumption is on the decline because new supplies of natural gas are displacing coal in power plants. The change has been so dramatic that since 2006, the U.S. is the world leader in reducing carbon dioxide emissions:

US emissions have now fallen by 430 Mt (7.7%) since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions. This development has arisen from lower oil use in the transport sector … and a substantial shift from coal to gas in the power sector.

One bit of irony here is that some environmental groups are seeking to stop fracking altogether, or have otherwise fought against the expansion of natural gas. However, if they were successful this would in the short-term absolutely mean a return to coal and an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. (Wind and solar will make large contributions long-term, but in the short term can’t displace idled coal plants). So emissions in the U.S. have declined despite misguided environmental obstructionism.

The next graphic shows the picture in the rest of the world:

While each region’s total is far less than Asia Pacific’s 15 billion tons of emissions in 2011, the trends are the same. Developing countries are increasing their emissions as they increase standards of living.

One question that often comes up concerns the historical U.S. contribution to the atmospheric carbon dioxide inventory. Developing countries will point to historical U.S. emissions and argue that these emissions enabled U.S. development. They don’t believe it is in any way fair to restrict their development since developed countries have already emitted huge quantities of carbon dioxide.

There is truth to this argument. From 1965 through 2011, U.S. cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide were 255 billion metric tons. That is enough carbon dioxide to raise the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration over the past 46 years by 18 parts per million (PPM) from just the U.S. contribution. (See Footnote for calculation).

As a region, Asia Pacific has added even more cumulative carbon dioxide than that since 1965 at 287 billion metric tons. EU countries added another 203 billion tons. But as far as countries go, the U.S. has by far the highest cumulative emissions since 1965. China is in 2nd place at 133 billion tons, but no other country even breaks the 100 billion ton barrier. Globally, cumulative emissions since 1965 are 1.0 trillion tons, which should have increased (according to the calculation in the footnote) atmospheric carbon dioxide by 73 ppm. And if we cross-check the data from the Mauna Loa Observatory, we see that atmospheric carbon dioxide was about 320 ppm in 1965 and is just above 390 ppm in 2012.

Per Capita Emissions

The U.S. also has much higher per capita emissions than developing countries and EU countries. In 2008, the U.S. had the 12th highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions, but due to decreases in recent years are probably further down the list of countries now. Based on the newly-released BP data, here is how the U.S. compares to other regions of the world:


We can see that despite the decline in carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., we are still far above the EU and the developing world. Therein lies a problem. While we can acknowledge our historical emissions, and recognize that we still emit a lot of carbon dioxide per person, how exactly does this help the developing world? One answer I sometimes hear is “We have to provide the blueprint.” It is one thing to imagine that developing countries could develop without increasing their use of fossil fuels, but the reality is that even the developed regions have not shown that it can be done. We are so accustomed to our way of life and the high carbon emissions that it entails that we can’t begin to imagine how to show a country that emits 1/10th of what we do how to improve their standard of living without increasing their emissions.

Developing countries seek the same modern conveniences—dishwashers, televisions, computers, and cars—enjoyed by the developed world and which are currently powered mostly by fossil fuels. We can imagine that they can improve their standard of living without increasing their fossil fuel consumption, but what do we have to point to in order to show that it can be done? Even Iceland — which many believe to be a country that is largely running on renewable energy — has carbon dioxide emissions in line with the rest of the EU, and far above those of the developing world.


It is a quandary, and I not only see no easy answer — I see no viable answer period that doesn’t involve shutting down development in developing countries. This is why I am extremely skeptical that carbon emissions will be reined in. I might feel differently if there was not such a wide gap between the developed world and the developing world, but I believe over time that gap will close as the developing world’s emissions continue to increase. Given that overall emissions from the developing world are already much higher than those of the developed world, small increases in the standard of living have the potential to hugely increase global carbon dioxide emissions.

Footnote: According to this analysis, the average amount of CO2 emissions that causes an atmospheric increase of 1 ppm is 14.138 billion metric tons of CO2. The U.S. contribution of 255 billion tons over the past 36 years would then contribute 255/14.138 = 18.1.