Greenhouse Gas Emissions

To help explain how greenhouse gases heat the planet, physicist John Tyndall used a dam as an analogy:1 If water continually flows into a dam and the dam’s wall is made higher, the dam holds more water than before until it again overflows. In the same manner, the sun’s energy continually enters Earth’s atmosphere and because humanity has increased the concentration of greenhouse gases, the atmosphere now traps more heat. This heating will continue until the atmosphere again returns to space the same amount of energy arriving from the sun.

The quantity of energy trapped by greenhouse gases is known as radiative forcing, with units of Watts per square metre (W/m2). This is a measure of the contribution to global heating from each greenhouse gas, and shown in chart 1. Two thirds of total radiative forcing in 2018 was due to carbon dioxide (CO2).2

Chart 1(a). Annual radiative forcing of greenhouse gases. Data: NOAA ESRL.3 Chart 1(b). Stacked version of (a).

Radiative forcing of greenhouse gases is partially reduced by that from cooling aerosols, and global heating is therefore caused by the net amount.4

Chart 2 shows the annual change of radiative forcing by each greenhouse gas.

Chart 2. Annual change of radiative forcing by greenhouse gas, 1980-2018. Data: NOAA ESRL3

Chart 3 shows the same data as chart 2, but by share. The share of annual change caused by CO2 has been greater than 70% for every year since 1993, and reached 90% or more in 2003, 2005 and 2013.

Chart 3. Annual change of radiative forcing by greenhouse gas, as share of total annual change, 1980-2018. Data: NOAA ESRL.3

Our long term warming commitment, is determined solely by cumulative CO2 emissions.

Climate–carbon modelling experiments have shown that: (1) the warming per unit CO2 emitted does not depend on the background CO2 concentration; (2) the total allowable emissions for climate stabilisation do not depend on the timing of those emissions; and (3) the temperature response to a pulse of CO2 is approximately constant on timescales of decades to centuries.

Matthews, 2009, The proportionality of global warming to cumulative carbon emissions.5

The temperature response described above is shown in chart 4.

Chart 4. Temperature response to a 1 year pulse of our emissions from 2008.6

After 500 years, about a third of a CO2 emission pulse remains in the atmosphere.7

As shown below, half of cumulative CO2 (i.e all emitted from preindustrial year 1750 to the end of 2018) has been emitted in just the previous 37 years. A third has been emitted in the past 22 years and a quarter in the last 15 years. In 2018 alone, 2% was emitted (assuming land-use change emissions in 2018 equalled that in 2017).8 9 10

Chart 5. Proportion of total CO2 historically emitted over the period 1750 – 2018.9 10

Another way to represent cumulative emission is shown below.

Chart 6. What percentage of all global fossil fuel CO₂ emissions since 1751 have occurred in my lifetime? Credit: @neilrkaye11

It has taken society nearly 220 years (from 1750 to 1970) to emit the first trillion tons of CO2 and only another 40 years (1970–2010) to emit the next trillion tons. The third trillion tons, under current emission trends, would be emitted by 2030 and the fourth trillion tons before 2050.

Xu, Yangyang, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, “Well below 2 C: Mitigation strategies for avoiding dangerous to catastrophic climate changes.”12

Consequently, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased, as shown in chart 7(a). The steep change of growth began in 1955. Chart 7(b) shows that for every year since 2001, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased by more than 1.5ppm, as indicated by the columns that exceed the black line. The largest annual increase was in 2015.

Chart 7(a). Annual global mean CO2 concentration in units of parts per million (ppm), from 1850 to 2018. Data: IPCC and NOAA ESRL.13 Chart 7(b). Annual global mean CO2 growth rate. Data: NOAA ESRL.14

We conclude that, given currently available records, the present anthropogenic carbon release rate is unprecedented during the past 66 million years. 

Zeebe, Ridgwell and Zachos, 2016, Anthropogenic carbon release rate unprecedented during the past 66 million years.15

Our CO2 emissions originate from three sectors: energy (i.e. fossil fuel combustion), cement manufacture and land-use change. Chart 8(b) shows that fossil fuel emissions obviously dominate.

Chart 8(a). Annual global CO2 emissions from all sources (fossil fuels, cement and land use) in units of billions of tons of carbon dioxide (GtCO2), from 1850 to 2017. Data: Global Carbon Project.9 16 Chart 8(b). As per (a) but showing seperate contributors, from 1959 to 2017 (entire dataset at this level of detail). Data: Global Carbon Project.9 16

In 2016 and 2017, 84% of CO2 emissions originated from fossil fuels and flaring (the burning of waste gases).9 16 17 CO2 emissions in 2017 from all sectors are shown below, followed by fossil fuel CO2 emissions from 1959 to 2017.

Chart 9. CO2 emissions from all sectors in 2017.9 16
Chart 10. Fossil fuel CO2 emissions (the energy sector), 1959-2017. Data: Global Carbon Project.9

Fossil fuel CO2 emissions continued to grow in 2018. The IEA stated emissions increased by 1.7% to reach a record high of 33 GtCO2.18 This trend is shown below using data from BP, that lists a value for 2018 of 33.9GtCO2, and an annual growth of 2%.

Chart 11(a). Annual fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Data: BP(2019).19 Chart 11(b). As per (a) showing annual change; decreases in green. Chart 11(c). Annual change of fossil fuel CO2 emissions as percentage of previous year’s emissions.

The peak in global emissions is not yet in sight.

Global Carbon Project, 2018, Global Carbon Budget.20

Summary

Our CO2 emissions: (i) are trapping two thirds of the energy causing global heating; (ii) are the only rapidly increasing contributor; (iii) solely determine our long term heating commitment; and (iv) continue to grow with no peak in sight. Half of all CO2 emitted since preindustrial times has been emitted in the past 37 years, and almost all by the world’s energy sector. The present anthropogenic carbon release rate is unprecedented during the past 66 million years. 

  1. p. 5, Hansen, 2018, Climate Change in a Nutshell http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2018/20181206_Nutshell.pdf, accessed 18 December 2018()
  2. 2.044 W/m2 / 3.010 W/m2, https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/aggi/aggi.html()
  3. https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/aggi/aggi.html()()()
  4. p. 13, Climate Change in a Nutshell: The Gathering Storm, 18 Dec 2018. http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2018/20181206_Nutshell.pdf()
  5. Matthews, H.D., Gillett, N.P., Stott, P.A. and Zickfeld, K., 2009. The proportionality of global warming to cumulative carbon emissions. Nature459(7248), p.829. http://indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/The%20proportionality%20of%20global%20warming.pdf.()
  6. Reprinted from Figure 8.33, page 719, IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/.()
  7. Fig. 1 of Aamaas, B., Peters, G. P., and Fuglestvedt, J. S.: Simple emission metrics for climate impacts, Earth Syst. Dynam., 4, 145-170, 2013. https://doi.org/10.5194/esd-4-145-2013.()
  8. Value for 2018: projection for fossil fuel and flaring emissions = 37.1GtCO2 from http://www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/18/presentation.htm. Land-use change emissions in 2017 = 1.39GtC = 1.39 * 44 / 12 GtCO2 = 5.1GtCO2. Total = 37.1 + 5.1 = 42.2 GtCO2. Cumulative CO2 from 1750 to 2018 = 2,355.75 GtCO2. Proportion emitted in 2018 = 42.2 / 2,355.75 = 1.8%.()
  9. Emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production: Boden, T. A., Marland, G., and Andres, R. J.: Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A., doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2017, 2017. Data available at https://www.icos-cp.eu/GCP/2018, download labelled ‘2018 Global Budget v1.0’.()()()()()()()
  10. Value for 2018 is projection made in http://www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/18/presentation.htm.()()
  11. What percentage of all global fossil fuel CO₂ emissions since 1751 have occurred in my lifetime? @neilrkaye, Climate data scientist at UK Met Office.()
  12. Xu, Yangyang, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan. “Well below 2 C: Mitigation strategies for avoiding dangerous to catastrophic climate changes.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 39 (2017): 10315-10323. https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/114/39/10315.full.pdf()
  13. Data from 1850 to 2010 inclusive: p. 1404, Table AII.1.2 IPCC, 2013: Annex II: Climate System Scenario Tables [Prather, M., G. Flato, P. Friedlingstein, C. Jones, J.-F. Lamarque, H. Liao and P. Rasch (eds.)]. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2017/09/WG1AR5_AnnexII_FINAL.pdf.
    Data from 2011 to 2018 inclusive: Ed Dlugokencky and Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL, https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/gl_data.html()
  14. Ed Dlugokencky and Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL, https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/gl_data.html()
  15. Zeebe, Richard E., Andy Ridgwell, and James C. Zachos. “Anthropogenic carbon release rate unprecedented during the past 66 million years.” Nature Geoscience 9, no. 4 (2016): 325. https://www.nature.com/articles/ngeo2681()
  16. Emissions from land-use change average of two bookkeeping models: Houghton, R. A. and Nassikas, A. A.: Global and regional fluxes of carbon from land use and land cover change 1850-2015, Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 31, 456-472, 2017;  Hansis, E., Davis, S. J., and Pongratz, J.: Relevance of methodological choices for accounting of land use change carbon fluxes, Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 29, 1230-1246, 2015. Data available at https://www.icos-cp.eu/GCP/2018, download labelled ‘2018 Global Budget v1.0’.()()()()
  17. Calculations: (1) 2016: Total emissions = (9.74 + 1.3) = 11.04 GtC. Fossil fuel plus flaring emissions = (3.95 + 3.4 + 1.92 + .068) / 11.04 = 84.6%. (2) 2017: Total emissions = (9.87 + 1.39) = 11.26 GtC. Fossil fuel plus flaring emissions = (3.98 + 3.45 + 1.97 + .068) / 11.26 = 84.1%.()
  18. https://www.iea.org/geco/emissions/()
  19. https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy.html()
  20. http://www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/18/presentation.htm()