EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Eco-Economy Indicators
Carbon Emissions
January 01, 2004
Carbon Emissions Reach Record High
Lila Buckley

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In 2003, carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels climbed to a record high of 6.8 billion tons, up nearly 4 percent from the previous year. Global emissions of carbon have been rising steadily since the late eighteenth century—and rapidly since the 1950s. In fact, annual emissions have quadrupled since 1950. (See data.)


Three fourths of global carbon emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels, namely coal, oil, and natural gas. The rest come largely from deforestation. Of the four major sectors contributing to these emissions, electricity generation accounts for the largest share—35 percent. Transportation and industrial processes each account for 20 percent, and the remaining 25 percent comes from residential and commercial buildings.

Two thirds of the carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion are produced by just 10 countries. The United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, is the largest contributor, accounting for nearly one quarter of global emissions. China is second, with nearly 14 percent. Other major polluters are Russia, Japan, India, and Germany.

Most of the growth in emissions in the coming decades, however, is expected to come from developing countries. While overall global carbon emissions have risen 13 percent since 1990, those in China have increased 47 percent, for example. Indeed, this one country accounted for nearly half of the global increase in emissions in 2003.

As a result of the steady increase in carbon emissions, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased by 31 percent since 1750—a rate unprecedented in the past 20,000 years. Nature usually absorbs a large portion of carbon emissions in oceans and forests, known as “carbon sinks,” thereby slowing the rate of accumulation in the atmosphere. But recent trends suggest that emissions are outpacing absorption. Over the past two decades, atmospheric CO2 concentrations rose each year on average by 1.5 parts per million (ppm). But the last two years have seen unexplained and alarming jumps of 2.04 ppm and 2.54 ppm. This suggests that the ability of the earth’s natural systems to mitigate the rise in carbon emissions is weakening.

As concentrations rise, CO2 and other greenhouse gases trap the earth’s heat, causing temperatures to rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that global average surface temperatures will rise 1.4–5.8 degrees Celsius (2–10 degrees Fahrenheit) above 1990 levels by 2100. If the world’s carbon sinks are indeed reaching a saturation point, actual temperature rises could be even greater.

The good news is that we have the technologies to cut carbon emissions. Switching from a reliance on carbon-intensive fuels like coal and oil to renewable energies and lower-carbon natural gas can greatly reduce emissions. Wind energy, for example, currently produces enough carbon-free energy to provide electricity for 24 million people worldwide, and the potential is much greater. People are beginning to recognize the benefits of this energy source, and the use of wind power is growing at 31 percent a year.

Using more-efficient industrial and household appliances and setting new efficiency standards for industrial processes or retrofitted buildings will also pay off with reduced carbon emissions and lower energy bills. When mass transit is not available, gas-electric hybrid vehicles provide a low-emission transport solution. The highly efficient Toyota Prius, for example, uses less than half as much gasoline—and therefore emits less than half as much carbon—as the typical gasoline-powered car.

At the policy level, a government commitment to reducing carbon emissions through regulatory and market-based policies is vital. This can include energy-efficiency incentives like increased carbon taxes and removal of subsidies for carbon-intensive sources of energy, along with more investment in research and development of emissions-reducing technology. Denmark has raised taxes on carbon-intensive cars while reducing registration fees for purchases of energy-efficient vehicles. The Netherlands is requiring six of its coal-fired power plants to reduce their carbon emissions by 6 million tons between 2008 and 2012. And Japan is encouraging government officials to replace their existing fleet of cars with 10 million low-pollution vehicles and 50,000 fuel cell cars by 2010.

In the United States, the Bush administration’s Global Climate Change Initiative aims at reducing not carbon emissions but carbon intensity—the amount of carbon emissions per dollar of GDP. Under this plan, carbon intensity would decrease by 18 percent over the next 10 years. Yet with the economic growth that is expected, emissions of greenhouse gases would increase by 1.9 billion tons, rising 40 percent above 1990 levels by 2020. The administration’s initiative incorrectly assumes that measures to curb carbon emissions will hamper economic growth. This not only ignores the societal costs of rising carbon emissions, it also overlooks the financial advantages of investing in an eco-economy. A recent study by Redefining Progress, for example, maps out a plan for investing in clean, energy-efficient technologies that would create 1.4 million high-quality jobs and save the average U.S. household $1,275 a year in energy costs by 2025.

Despite the lack of leadership from the world’s leading carbon emitter, the global community is determined to move away from carbon. Russia recently ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which commits industrial nations that have signed it to reduce their emissions by at least 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The signatories of the protocol now account for 61 percent of the CO2 emissions of industrial countries—well above the 55 percent required to bring the protocol into effect. So the Kyoto rules will be in place by early 2005. The United States and Australia—although they refused to sign on—are certain to be influenced by this, as an internationally uniform emissions trading program will be implemented and new competitive markets will open for efficient energy and technology.

Even with the Kyoto Protocol in effect, current projections show continued rapid increases in carbon emissions as countries move up the economic ladder and burn more fossil fuels. Scientists believe that an immediate 70–80 percent reduction in current carbon emissions is necessary to mitigate further climate change. Countries recognizing this have already moved beyond the 5-percent reduction goal outlined in the protocol. Germany has lowered its emissions by 9 percent since 1991 and is discussing the possibility of another 40-percent reduction by 2020. The United Kingdom, which has cut emissions by 8 percent since 1990, aims to reduce them 60 percent by 2050 and is urging the rest of the European Union to do the same. A report from the David Suzuki Foundation and the Canadian Climate Action Network sets out a plan to halve greenhouse gas emissions in Canada by 2030. And where national governments fail to act, local governments have stepped in: More than 600 cities worldwide have developed their own plans to reduce carbon emissions.

While the Kyoto Protocol provides a crucial starting point for reducing carbon emissions, efforts over the long term will be futile without a commitment from the United States as well as from developing nations like China and India. Curbing carbon emissions and avoiding damaging changes in climate will require moving beyond the Kyoto Protocol with significantly lower emissions everywhere.

Copyright © 2004 Earth Policy Institute

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