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Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Fossil Fuels and Cement Reach Highest Point in Human History

We already know the world’s carbon budget is being exhausted at an alarming pace, but a new scientific assessment reveals just how sobering the picture of the global carbon cycle truly is.

The Global Carbon Project’s (GCP) 2013 report finds that at the precise time emissions reductions are needed most, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels and producing cement have reached their highest level in human history.

The GCP is conducted in partnership between the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, the World Climate Research Programme, and Diversitas, and all datasets and modeling output are described in the peer reviewed literature. Some of the headline numbers from the GCP summary include:

What are the current global CO2 emissions levels and concentrations?

  • 2.1 percent: Increase in CO2 emissions associated with burning fossil fuels and producing cement in 2012, as well as the expected percentage increase for 2013.

  • 58 percent: Increase in 2012 CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels and producing cement, compared to 1990 levels.

  • 392.5: Average global atmospheric CO2 concentrations in parts per million (ppm) in 2012. This is the highest concentration in at least the last 800,000 years. While not included in the GCP report, global atmospheric CO2 concentrations also briefly passed 400 ppm earlier this year.

  • 9.7 billion: Approximate tonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and producing cement in 2012. This is equivalent to the carbon emissions associated with more than 10,000 coal-fired power plants.

  • 390 billion: Approximate cumulative tonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuel and producing cement between 1870 and 2013.

  • 160 billion: Approximate cumulative tonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere by land use change (e.g. deforestation) between 1870 and 2013.

  • 550 billion: Approximate cumulative tonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere by all human activities between 1870 and 2013 – meaning fossil fuels and cement have contributed more than two-thirds of all carbon emissions.

What fuels and sectors are creating the world’s emissions?

  • 8 percent: Average share of total CO2 emissions caused by human activities during 2003-2012 that were associated with deforestation and other land use change. In fact, a new scientific publication reveals the world loses 50 soccer fields’ worth of forest every minute, every day.

  • 33 percent: Oil’s share of total 2012 CO2 emissions generated by burning fossil fuels and producing cement.

  • 43 percent: Coal’s share of total 2012 CO2 emissions generated by burning fossil fuels and producing cement. Coal generates the most CO2 emissions of any fossil fuel and yet remains the world’s dominant energy source.

Who is generating the world’s emissions?

  • 0.5 tonnes: Per capita carbon emissions for 2012 in India. India was responsible for 6 percent of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions in 2012, and its emissions increased 7.7 percent compared to 2011.

  • 1.4 tonnes: Per capita carbon emissions for 2012 worldwide

  • 1.9 tonnes: Per capita carbon emissions for 2012 in China. China was responsible for 27 percent of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions in 2012, and emissions increased 5.9 percent compared to 2011.

  • 1.9 tonnes: Per capita carbon emissions for 2012 in the European Union. The EU was responsible for 10 percent of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions in 2012, and emissions decreased 1.3 percent compared to 2011.

  • 4.4 tonnes: Per capita carbon emissions for 2012 in the United States. The United States was responsible for 14 percent of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions in 2012, and emissions decreased 3.7 percent compared to 2011.

How much global warming can these emissions cause?

While each of the numbers from GCP’s 2013 report are important in their own right, one is the most grim: 3.2-5.4°C – the amount of warming above pre-industrial levels our collective carbon dioxide emissions put the world on track for by 2100. With every degree of temperature rise, we risk increasingly dangerous levels of forest fires, coral bleaching, sea level rise, and other serious impacts.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent report showed that under a carbon-intensive trajectory we will entirely burn through our carbon budget in about 30 years. Once again, we’re shown that the window to cut emissions is closing faster and faster. It’s an important reminder of just how high the stakes are for international negotiators at COP 19.

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