Another Record Year for CO2


This is the 4th installment in a series that examines data from the recently released Statistical Review of World Energy 2014. The previous posts covered the world’s growing fossil fuel consumption:

Today I examine the implications of that growing fossil fuel consumption by looking at carbon dioxide emission trends. The key points in the report include:

  • Global carbon dioxide emissions increased by 2.1% to reach a new record high in 2013.
  • China had the largest carbon dioxide emissions of any country in 2013, and was responsible for 27.1% of the world’s total.
  • Following several years of declines, US carbon dioxide emissions grew by 2.9% in 2013 and now represent 16.9% of the global total.
  • Since 2003, global carbon dioxide emissions have grown by 7.8 billion metric tons. To understand the magnitude of that increase, consider that total US carbon dioxide emissions in 2013 were 5.9 billion metric tons.

More Records Fall

Global carbon dioxide emissions increased to 35.1 billion metric tons (BMT) in 2013. This was a new global record, 2.1% above the previous record set a year earlier. Global carbon dioxide emissions have set new records 4 years in a row, and have increased in 19 of the past 20 years. Over the past decade carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 29% — an increase greater than total US emissions.

Global CO2 Emissions1965 through 2013

China was the largest carbon dioxide emitter in 2013 with 9.5 BMT of carbon dioxide emissions, a gain of 4.2% over their 2012 emissions. The US was second with 5.9 BMT, up 2.9% from 2012. Rounding out the Top 5 for total carbon dioxide emissions were India (1.8 BMT — up 4.4%), Russia (1.7 BMT — down 0.4%), and Japan (1.4 BMT — down 0.5%).

Per Capita and Legacy Emissions

Per capita emissions in the US are two and a half times those of China. Per capita carbon dioxide emissions in China (based on a population of 1.35 billion) were 7.1 metric tons per person. The US emitted 18.9 metric tons per person in 2013. For reference, if China’s per capita emissions were equal to that of US per capita emissions, global carbon dioxide emissions would be 43% higher than they are today.

China became the world’s largest current emitter of carbon dioxide in 2008, and has held that position since. However the US is the country responsible for the most carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere over time. Since 1965 the US has emitted an estimated 267 BMT of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. China is way back in 2nd place at 150 BMT emitted over that time frame (but has been gaining ground on the US in recent years), followed by Japan (55 BMT), Russia (53 BMT) and Germany (48 BMT). Regionally, the Asia Pacific region now has more annual carbon dioxide emissions than the US and EU combined.

Regional CO2 Emissions 1965 through 2013

Globally, 1.1 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide have been released to the atmosphere since 1965. Member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) — most of the world’s developed countries — are responsible for 55% of the total emissions since 1965. The US share is 24.3%, the European Union’s share is 19.2%, and China’s share is 13.6%.

However, that pattern of emissions has shifted in recent years. In the past 5 years China had the largest share of global carbon dioxide emissions at 24.8% of the total, while non-OECD countries as a whole were responsible for 57.5% of the carbon dioxide emissions over the past 5 years. In 2013, the non-OECD share of global carbon dioxide emission growth jumped to 91%. Asia Pacific’s share of global carbon dioxide emission growth last year was the largest of any region at 76%.

OECD v NonOECD CO2 Emissions 1965 through 2013

China’s Emissions > Rest of the World 

China also had the largest total increase in carbon dioxide emissions with a gain of 358 million metric tons (MMT) — more than the rest of the world combined. The US increase was the second largest gainer, at just under half of China’s increase with a 150 MMT increase over 2012. India’s 77 MMT increase was good for 3rd place, while Brazil (+33 MMT) and Indonesia (+23 MMT) round out the Top 5 gainers.

Discussion and Conclusions

No matter how I present this data, there will be those determined to misrepresent what I am saying. For instance, I recently came across the following article: Powering the World’s Poorer Economies: A Response to Bill Gates and Jigar Shah. In the article, the author asserts:

It would be wrong for the rich to continue to burn fossil fuels while denying them to the poor to protect the climate. It would also be a pointless exercise, since the poor cannot afford enough fossil-fuel consumption to make a meaningful climate difference.

Of course it is easy to rebut his second sentence by showing that developing countries are indeed driving the majority of carbon emissions today. Just look at the graphics in this article. Regardless of who is responsible for the legacy emissions, current trends are that developing countries are driving them. So I made this observation in the comments following the article, and was immediately attacked by someone for being intolerant of the emissions of developing countries. After all, if it was good enough for the US, why couldn’t I accept it for developing countries? And aren’t US per capita emissions much higher?

That’s the thing though. I am not making moral judgments here. I am not suggesting that developing countries don’t have the same right to use fossil fuels as developed countries. I am merely pointing out facts. In order to solve a problem, one has to understand the problem. And when we make incorrect assumptions — such as “the poor cannot afford enough fossil-fuel consumption to make a meaningful climate difference” — we may work on “solutions” that don’t actually solve the problem.

This is a very challenging problem, but the only way the developed countries will solve it is to develop low-cost, convenient, and scalable sources of power so developing countries can continue to develop. If we don’t, they will continue to develop with coal. Another possibility would be to find a way to start pulling significant amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequestering it. In theory this can be done (and plants do this as they grow), but so far there are no scalable, economic solutions significant enough to impact the problem.

By Robert Rapier. You can find me on TwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook.