AnalysisClimate Change

The United States declining role in CO2 emissions

While looking for climate change news to add to, it is easy to find many online editorials pointing to the importance of climate change policy in the upcoming presidential election. Mitt Romney is typically portrayed as ignorant of, or at least indifferent to, the problem of climate change. Barack Obama is generally viewed as more supportive of the issue, but has taken some heat for failing to follow through on some 2008 campaign promises.

What I find most interesting is the prevailing opinion among many editorial writers that a shift to clean energy in the United States will have a significant impact on the global warming problem. The hard numbers lead me to a different conclusion. Don’t get me wrong, I’m for a shift to alternative energy sources, but mainly as a means of eliminating our dependence on foreign oil.

CO2 Emissions Per Capita

There are several ways to look at greenhouse gas emissions. By looking at CO2 emissions per capita, the United States comes across as a carbon belching behemoth. That should not be surprising because we are one of the largest and wealthiest nations in the world. The chart below shows the United States emits 18 metric tons of CO2 per capita. That is roughly four times the per capita emissions for the planet as a whole, more than three times what China emits per capita, and 12 times what India emits per capita.

On the positive side, CO2 emissions per capita have been declining since 1997, are 4.5 metric tons lower than the peak in 1973, and are at their lowest level since 1965. So, in that regard, the United States has done something to curb CO2 emissions per capita in the past few decades. The important thing to note from a purely scientific perspective is that global warming does not occur as a result of per capita emissions. What counts most in the anthropogenic global warming problem is the total CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. This is why I think the climate change policy issue is being overblown in the upcoming election.

Total CO2 Emissions

When looking at the total greenhouse gas emissions over the past several decades, the U.S. role in global warming is quite a bit different. First, the United States is responsible for 17% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions per year. China roared past the United States in 2005, and hasn’t looked back – now accounting for about 22% of the world’s CO2 emissions per year. China’s per capita emissions are less, but that’s because there are 1.34 billion people living there. As of 2008, they were producing 7,000,000 (kilotons) kt of CO2 equivalent – double what they were producing in 2002. The United States, by comparison, was producing 5,460,o00 kt up from 5,167,500 kt in 1993. An increase of 5% in 15 years. Furthermore, the rate of CO2 emissions in the United States has not increased dramatically in the last 40 years.

From 1993-2008 the worldwide greenhouse gas emissions per year increased from 22,370,600 kt to 32,082,600 kt – a total increase of 9,712,000 kt. In the same time span, the United States per year CO2 emissions increased by a total of 293,00 kt. 97% of the worldwide increase in CO2 emissions has come from outside of the United States.

Somehow, in this upcoming election, anthropogenic global warming is being portrayed as a United States problem that can be solved, or at least curbed, based on a clean energy policy. The numbers, however, tell a different story. This is a worldwide problem that requires a lot more than a shift to clean energy in the United States if it is going to be solved. At the rate China and India are moving up the CO2 emissions chart, a sharp decline in the U.S. emissions would not even be enough to offset it.

So, if you believe that all this “extreme weather” is a result of global warming, then you should also know that a dramatic, and potentially costly, shift in the U.S. to clean energy is not going to alleviate any anthropogenic global warming concerns as long as the rest of the world continues with business as usual.

Please, feel free to join the conversation by adding a comment below.

Fred Campagna

President and Chief Meteorologist - Right Weather LLC AMS Certified Consulting Meteorologist #756 AMS Certified Broadcast Meteorologist #126

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  1. Mike, here is the link comparing the US and Germany CO2 emissions 1997-2008. I wouldn’t call that a far better job considering that Germany’s population hasn’t changed while the US population has grown by more than 10% in that timeframe .

  2. I don’t believe in global warming. Aren’t these patterns of extreme weather normal?Haven’t we seen weather extremes way before we where an industrialized nation? Doesn’t earth have warm periods and cool periods, that is documented in history?

    1. Lee, that is an entirely different debate. I think you have a lot of valid questions, from which you’ll get vastly different answers depending on who you ask. Personally, I don’t think the scientific consensus is as strong as it is made out to be. I was just trying to point out that, regardless of any CO2-induced warming, the United States is just one player in the entire contribution from the world population.

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