What are the major contributors to climate change?

·Producer, Reporter
·4 min read

A quick internet search for the causes of climate change will most likely bring you to images of smoke billowing from coal plants.

Your search engine’s picture results point to the truth: The burning of coal, natural gas and oil for electricity, transportation and heat is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

However, there are also many other factors to take into consideration.

Human activities — for instance, the way we heat our homes, power our air conditioners, fuel our cars and produce our food — all contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, which causes the temperature of the planet to rise.

Different fossil fuels emit different gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, some fluorinated gases and others, into the atmosphere.

But the gas that is emitted most often is carbon dioxide.

A coal-fired power station silhouette at sunset.
A coal-fired power station at sunset. (Getty Images)

According to data by the Environmental Protection Agency, carbon dioxide accounts for 65 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and it primarily comes from the production and combustion of fossil fuels, as well as deforestation and other destruction of the plants and lands that absorb carbon dioxide.

Methane, which is emitted by livestock, waste decomposition and the production of oil and gas, among other things, contributes to 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

But what does that tell us about the activities that have the biggest impact on the climate?

Well, the EPA data shows that electricity and heat generation accounts for 25 percent of global greenhouse emissions, while food and land use is 24 percent. It also reveals that industrial processes such as cement and steel production contribute 21 percent, and transportation, including road, rail, air and marine travel, counts for 14 percent.

So where in the world are these greenhouse gases coming from?

Research from the the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data, using measurements from 2017 for only fossil fuels and cement production, found that Asia is by far the largest emitter — accounting for 53 percent of global emissions — followed by North America at 18 percent, Europe at 17 percent, Africa and South America at 3 to 4 percent each, and Oceania, which includes Australia and a number of Pacific islands, at just 1.3 percent of global emissions.

However, those figures start to shift slightly when broken up by country and population. China, the United States and India currently lead the world in carbon emissions.

Richard Allan, climate science professor at the University of Reading in England, explained why this is the case.

“These big countries, with their populations, big amounts of energy requirements, are going to be producing a lot of greenhouse gas emissions that's driving climate change,” Allan said. “But one of the reasons [they contribute more] is just the sheer number of people in that country. India and China have huge, huge populations. Using energy also depends on how much energy is used per person.”

A Power plant in a desert in Qatar.
A power plant in a desert in Qatar. (Getty Images)

When you account for population, the order changes — and the per capita emissions of China and India are dwarfed by a number of much smaller nations, including Australia, Canada and oil-producing countries like Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

It’s also important to note that some countries have a longer history of producing emissions due to earlier industrialization. When it comes to carbon dioxide contributions since 1751, the U.S. is the leader by far. It is responsible for 25 percent of historical emissions, twice as much as China — the world’s second-largest national contributor, according to data from Oxford.

Another large historical emitter is the United Kingdom. The same data shows that until 1882, more than half the world’s cumulative emissions came from the U.K. alone.

But global warming is a worldwide problem happening now, and the solutions to it come from actions taken by both countries and individuals.

Switching to renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar, as well as dietary shifts, reforestation, moving to electric transport systems and halting extraction of fossil fuels, are all actions that could help ease carbon emissions.

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