CO2 emissions related to energy consumption rose to a historic high of 33.1 Gt CO2 in 2018. The energy generation sector was responsible for almost two-thirds of the total rise in emissions. China, India, and the United States caused 85% of the net increase in emissions. Germany, Japan, Mexico, France, and the United Kingdom reported a decline in their emissions. So let us now have a better understanding of the carbon footprints of various sectors.
In 2018, global CO2 emissions grew by 1.7%. This was the highest ever recorded growth in emissions since 2013. The high energy demand drove this steep climb in emissions. A thriving global economy fueled the high energy consumption. Also, extreme weather events in parts of the world led people to increase their energy consumption for heating and cooling devices.
For every 1% increase in the global economy, CO2 emissions increase by 0.5%. However, renewable energy has had an enormous impact on the reduction of emissions, with emissions now growing 25% slower than the energy demand.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) found that carbon footprints from the use of coal were responsible for 30% of the 1oC increase in global average temperatures. This finding put coal at the top spot for driving the increase in global temperatures. Asia operates a majority of the world’s coal-fired power plants. However, government policies encouraging the switch from coal to gas helped avert almost 95 Mt of CO2 emissions. Without this switch, emissions would have increased by 15%.
Carbon Footprints of Transport
Nearly one-fifth of global carbon footprints are due to the transport sector. In wealthier countries, with populations that travel frequently, transport makes up a significant amount of a country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Let’s now look at the most common modes of transportation and how they contribute to carbon footprints.
The aviation industry accounts for nearly 2.4% of global carbon footprints. These emissions, coupled with water vapor trails from an aircraft, make the aviation industry responsible for around 5% of the Earth’s warming. For people that frequently holiday at places you need a flight to get to, this makes up a significant part of their carbon footprints.
CO2 emissions from airplanes increased by 32% between 2013 and 2018. While new technology is helping to reduce the emission from planes, it is not enough to cope with an increased passenger count. To put it into figures, technology has helped decrease emissions by 1%, but the number of flights has increased by 6%. Apart from CO2, even soot and nitrous oxide emitted by planes trap heat in the atmosphere and lead to high carbon footprints.
The road transport sector is the third-largest contributor to local carbon footprints in India. With increased economic growth, vehicle ownership in India increased by 11% from 2001 to 2015. The increase in ownership led to a rise in GHG emissions from road vehicles. A typical passenger vehicle releases around 4.6 metric tons of CO2 annually. Every gallon of fuel burned releases 8 kg of CO2.
Between 2018-2019, the railways accounted for 4% of India’s total greenhouse gas emissions. In July 2020, the Indian railways announced that they plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030. They have already started reducing the dependence of railways engines on diesel and coal. Their aim is the complete electrification of all Indian railways by 2023. However, India depends on the burning of coal to produce electricity. The railways would have to produce their own clean and renewable energy supply to achieve their target. They would have to connect rail generators to solar or wind-powered plants.
Almost 90% of everything we consume gets transported to us by ships. With world trade and the global economy growing, ships crossing the oceans have increased. Ships use vast amounts of energy to move and release equally devastating emissions. The shipping industry alone is responsible for 2.5% of global carbon footprints, releasing 940 Mt of CO2 every year. The International Maritime Organization has plans in place to reduce these emissions by 50% by 2050.
Carbon Footprints of Products
68% of emissions associated with temperature rise are due to food production, while the transport of food accounts for 5% of all food emissions. Agricultural practices release greenhouse gases such as CO2, N2O, and CH4. Meat products have much more giant carbon footprints than grains or vegetables. Animals like goats, sheep, and cattle release methane through their digestion and excretion. Switching to a vegetarian diet or consuming less carbon-intensive meats like chicken can significantly reduce a person’s carbon footprint.
After the oil industry, the textile industry falls in second place in the list of the world’s most polluting industries. The textile industry releases 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually. This figure is greater than the emissions from the shipping and aviation industries combined. The fashion industry contributes 10% of annual CO2 emissions. If the textile industry cannot make the change to a more sustainable, circular process, its emissions could rise by as much as 60% by 2030. The majority of textile manufacturing units are located in India and China. These countries rely heavily on coal to satisfy their energy demands. This means that textile industries in these countries have huge carbon footprints since their operations depend on burning coal.
The carbon footprint of a material includes the CO2 emitted during the extraction and transport of raw materials to the manufacture of a finished product. When we look at the material used by different sectors of the economy, the material used by the construction industry generates the highest carbon footprint. Materials in the vehicle production industry contribute 56% to its carbon footprint.
Apart from water, cement is the world’s highest consumed product. The cement industry releases 4 billion tons of CO2 annually. Cement production requires the firing of clay, limestone, and other materials in a kiln. Cement production is the most carbon-intensive process, requiring temperatures to be raised to around 1400oC. The consumption of energy used to fire the kiln releases CO2. Every ton of cement produced releases approximately 600 kg of CO2.
Why Take Action?
The world’s population is currently 7 billion people. We 7 billion people consume a massive amount of the Earth’s resources. We’ve consumed so much that we’ve almost completely destroyed the environment, driven up greenhouse emissions, and caused a warming climate. If we don’t change, there won’t be an Earth left for our children and their children. Right before our eyes, wild species are going extinct, the polar ice caps are melting, and the sea levels are rising. With the UN predicting that global populations could increase to 11 billion by 2100, now is the time to reflect on and change the type of impact we make on our planet. Every one of us needs to put in efforts to ensure that we have a chance of achieving a clean and green future. Our carbon footprints must reach an all-time low for us to have even the slightest chance of preserving the Earth for future generations.
Global temperatures will continue to rise as long as greenhouse gas emissions continue. Even if we could achieve zero carbon footprints today, temperatures will continue to climb for several decades due to the long life of CO2. With rising temperatures come more extreme and frequent weather events, bringing devastating socioeconomic impacts along with them.
What are ‘Net’ Emissions?
Net emissions refer to total emissions released from an activity. Net emissions do not take into account the CO2 removed from the atmosphere by soils and forests. It focuses only on the emission of CO2 from various activities.
For the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to start reducing or even stabilize, we need to achieve net-zero emissions. We often refer to net-zero emissions as ‘carbon neutrality’. It means reaching a balance between the number of emissions released and the amount taken out of the atmosphere. Picture it as a set of weight scales; excessive emissions of greenhouse gases cause one side of the scale to tip. To bring the scales back into balance, we either remove carbon from the atmosphere or completely stop emitting carbon into the atmosphere.
Many people think of reaching net-zero emissions as completely stopping the release of all greenhouse gases. This is not true. When we do reach net-zero emissions, we can still release some amount of emissions provided that carbon sinks gradually offset them. Carbon sinks include forests and soils—these draw down enormous amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.
The Rise in Greenhouse Gases Over Time
Globally, since 1990, the greenhouse gas emissions from human activities have increased by 43%. CO2 accounts for around three-fourths of total emissions. Since 1990, CO2 emissions have increased by 51%. A majority of the global emissions are due to the transport and electricity generation industries.
Since the beginning of the industrial period, the concentrations of greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere have increased. Current levels of CO2 concentrations are unprecedented when compared with levels throughout the past 800,000 years. For the first time in 800,000 years, CO2 emissions are more than 300 ppm (parts per million).
In just a couple of decades, we have raised CO2 levels in the atmosphere so much as what would otherwise take thousands of years to occur naturally. This means that so much change has occurred in such little time that species and ecosystems haven’t had a chance to adapt.
CO2, CH4, and N2O are the three most long-lived greenhouse gases. Since 1750, their presence in the atmosphere has increased substantially. During any previous 1,000 year-period, scientists have not found CO2 to increase by more than 30 ppm. However, emissions rose to greater than 30 ppm in the past two decades alone. Similarly, concentrations of CH4 never exceeded 790 ppb (parts per billion) in the past two centuries. Current day levels of CH4, however, are more than 1,770 ppb.
The single leading cause for this massive boom in the emission of greenhouse gases is the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution began in the 1800s. It marked the shift from economies dependent on agriculture and handicrafts to economies based on industries and factories. The revolution marked the discovery of new power sources and machines that made traditional industries more efficient. But with this efficiency came a sudden and steep rise in the number of greenhouse gases released. Carbon footprints around the world rose. This is the point from which our climate and environment took, and continue to take, a downhill trajectory.
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