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Visualizing the Past, Present and Future of Carbon Emissions

At COP 20 in Lima this week, country representatives are coming together to discuss plans to reign in global greenhouse gas emissions. A new infographic from WRI reveals the history of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, as well as what needs to happen to stay within world’s “carbon budget” and prevent the most disastrous impacts of climate change.



The Carbon Budget

The carbon budget is a threshold for global warming: If the world emits less than a certain amount of cumulative CO2 emissions, we have a likely chance to limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, thus avoiding the worst impacts of a changing climate. A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) estimates the world’s carbon budget to be 2900 gigatonnes of CO₂.

The interactive—which draws on data from WRI’s Climate Data Indicators Explorer (CAIT 2.0) and research from the IPCC—reveals that as of 2011, the world has already used up nearly two-thirds of the carbon budget. The world’s top emitters have changed significantly over time, with emissions stemming largely from fossil fuel use, cement manufacturing, and deforestation and land use change.1

The Future of Global Emissions

The IPCC has put forth several scenarios that outline a spectrum of emissions pathways.2 If emissions continue unabated—a fossil-fuel intensive scenario—the world would exhaust its carbon budget in just two decades.

However, it’s still possible to stay within the budget and stick to the 2 degree target. Under an ambitious “transformative change scenario,” the world will still slightly surpass the budget3 until emissions eventually go negative—that is, more carbon dioxide emissions are captured and sequestered than released. Cumulative emissions would then decrease, keeping temperature rise below 2 degrees C.

This scenario is only possible if countries commit to ambitious actions that cap and steeply reduce global emissions. That level of international climate action is achievable, but it will take leadership, political will, and a strong climate agreement at COP 21 in Paris in 2015.

LEARN MORE:** Visit CAIT 2.0 for more information about the history and present status of greenhouse gas emissions.

  1. Before 1990, deforestation & land-use data cannot be attributed to specific countries, so data are shown as a global number. The country and regional level data includes carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and cement. 

  2. Comprehensive country level data are not available for the emissions scenarios. Therefore, only a global number is shown. 

  3. The carbon budget is assumed to be 2900Gt CO2 in both scenarios. Transformative change could also lead to more action reducing the non-CO2 greenhouse gases and therefore keep us within the budget. 

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