Science to Live By: An Incommodious Truth­— Carbon Dioxide: The Essential Pollutant (Part Seven)


© J. Dirk Nies, Ph.D.

Carbon dioxide is the natural by-product of burning fossil fuels. We Americans have chosen to power our economy by burning fossil fuels since the 1880s, when coal achieved predominance.  From then until today, America has favored—on practical and economic grounds—burning coal, oil and natural gas to supply most of our country’s energy needs.

In this article, I will examine how U.S. and global emissions of carbon dioxide, generated from burning fossil fuels, have evolved over the past two decades. I will say upfront that I am astonished, modestly delighted, but mostly dismayed by recent trends that are emerging. Ramifications of these trends, which I will touch upon later, have profound importance regarding the choices we face today.

For relevant and reliable data, I have turned to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the statistical and analytical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy. EIA “collects, analyzes, and disseminates independent and impartial energy information to promote sound policymaking, efficient markets, and public understanding of energy and its interaction with the economy and the environment.”

EIA publishes data on its website, One of their online products is International Energy Statistics. From among these data, I chose 1995 as a baseline year to compare and contrast with 2012, the most recent year for which EIA compiled statistics in this report. Supporting data are presented in Table 1. Here are a few notable highlights.

First the good news.

Annual emissions of carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels fell in the United States and in Europe. Both the American and European economies emitted a little less (each about 0.5 billion metric tons less) of this greenhouse gas in 2012 than they did in 1995. Here and in Europe we are beginning to see glimmers that fossil fuel’s dominance is beginning to wane.

Now the rest of the news. I hope you’re sitting down.

Worldwide, annual CO2 emissions shot up 45.8 percent. While America and Europe were holding about steady, the world’s annual emissions increased by 10.14 billion metric tons, from 22.17 to 32.31 billion metric tons.

This monumental amplification of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is greater than American and European yearly CO2 emissions combined! However bad America was in 1995, in a mere 17 years, the world duplicated America’s emissions, and threw in all of Europe’s to boot. The emerging economies accomplished this on top of what they already were emitting two decades ago.

Even more disconcerting, Chinese emissions of CO2 skyrocketed 184 percent. For the first time in modern history, China reigns supreme and unchallenged as the world’s largest emitter of CO2.

In 2012, China released 8.106 billion metric tons of CO2 into the air—an increase of 5.254 billion metric tons over their 1995 levels of 2.852 billion metric tons. In doing so, China contributed more the half of the increase in world CO2 emissions that occurred between 1995 and 2012.  Coincidentally, this increase of 5.254 billion metric tons is equivalent to the entire annual emissions of the United States. Shockingly, what took us more than two centuries to achieve, the Chinese replicated in less than two decades!

The countries of the Middle East (126 percent increase) and India (108 percent increase) became major contributors during this time period.  They more than doubled their emissions of CO2.

Taken together, the emerging economies of China, India and the Middle East accounted for nearly three-fourths of the increase seen worldwide. Their annual emissions of CO2 (11.973 billion metric tons) grew to become 25 percent greater than those of Europe and America combined (9.533 billion metric tons).


The remaining countries of the world, including Central and South America, Africa, Mexico, Canada, Russia, Australia, Japan and Korea, collectively saw their emissions rise by 36.7 percent, contributing an additional 2.902 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year above their combined 1995 levels.

Here are four major points I wish to emphasize.

First, the U.S. held its emissions in check—even while our population and economy grew. We achieved this through energy conservation, improved energy efficiency, bringing renewable energy sources on line, and switching to natural gas in lieu of coal (for the same amount of energy, natural gas produces about half as much carbon dioxide as does coal). Another important factor was increased out-sourcing of energy-intensive manufacturing. As Americans purchased more and more goods made overseas, we also shifted our CO2 emissions overseas as well.

Second, China, India, and the Middle East saw their emissions grow enormously. This occurred as their energy use per person rose to more closely emulate American and European per capita energy use.

Third, had America and Europe completely sworn off fossil fuels and cut their emissions to zero in 2012, annual CO2 emissions worldwide still would have increased by 0.6 billion metric tons over 1995 levels.

Fourth, CO2 emissions worldwide will continue to increase if emerging economies persist in copying our current patterns of energy generation and use.

Looking forward to 2040, EIA projects that U.S. energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide will grow on average 0.1 percent per year. By the end of this century, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has forecast atmospheric CO2 concentrations to possibly be as high as 970 ppm.   As a reference point, CO2 concentrations are 400 ppm now; they were 280 ppm back in 1750.

EIA data starkly illustrate the magnitude of the challenge before us. Around the world, fossil fuels are being burned in quantities greater than at any time in human history. Consequently, power-related emissions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere have never been higher. Our global economy remains on an energy path that will pump CO2 into the atmosphere faster than the Earth’s ecosystems can remove it from the air. We are out of balance.

More fundamentally, the Earth’s recoverable supply of fossil fuels eventually will run dry. To paraphrase Giuseppe di Lampedusa, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” The status quo will not sustain the status quo. Carbon dioxide is essential for life. It is not inherently necessary for industrial power.

To put ourselves on a sustainable energy footing, we must design and implement dramatic transformations in how we generate, transmit, store and use energy. To reduce energy-related CO2 emissions to the atmosphere and thus diminish the risks they pose to the climate, the world’s major economies must deeply ‘decarbonize.’

Many fruitful steps to this end have been initiated. They include: improving energy conservation at work and at home; switching to more energy efficient appliances, cars and manufacturing processes; generating “clean electricity” from non-carbon-based energy sources; buying locally manufactured goods and locally grown foods; using water more efficiently; improving battery and other energy storage technologies; switching to non-carbon-based power for transportation and heating; and using carbon-free fuels, such as hydrogen gas, synthesized using “clean electricity.”

Effective remedies will require global cooperation. Even with unprecedented, multinational collaboration in concord with a worldwide, herculean effort, transiting away from fossil fuels will take many decades to achieve. This means that while we are making changes in the ways we power our economy, we also will need to adjust and to adapt in the years ahead to a climate and ecosystem that is influenced by atmospheric CO2 levels much higher than they are today.

An update from the author:



    1. This article raises very serious questions about the future of the earth regarding CO2 concentrations.
    2. Personally, I have been involved mostly in commercial and institutional areas for about the last 30 years in energy conservation efforts, and I have concluded that while some improvements have resulted from energy conservation efforts in the U.S. there is still a very large amount of energy waste in all sectors of the economy. In many cases, it is very difficult to arouse people’s interest in saving energy.
    3. While the data seems to show some improvement in CO2 levels from fossil fuels in the U.S., this is not true in China and other parts of the world.
    4. While certain improvements in efficiency of equipment and processes have been made in recent years, in many cases these improvements have been negated by poor operation of systems. For example, HVAC equipment has been produced with higher efficiency (SEER) ratings, but this can be negated by inefficient operation, such as improper operating schedules for example.
    5. The big question to me is what is the predictable effect of large increases in CO2 levels on life on the planet?
    6. I guess I am largely doubtful about the possibility of reducing emissions in such places as China, etc.
    7. You mentioned hydrogen as a replacement for gasoline in vehicles. I guess I have a hard time feeling comfortable sitting on top of a tank of liquid hydrogen.
    8. Obviously the CO2 problem is one of much complexity and solutions will not be easy or even possible. So, my little comments don’t seem to be important. But I salute you for bringing the problem in focus.

    • Hi Marv,

      Thank you for your comments based upon your practical experience.

      Yes, energy conservation and efficiency are important activities that all of us can participate in as we transition toward powering our economy in ways that do not emit excessive carbon dioxide to the air.

      Regarding hydrogen gas, when I wrote that long list separated by semi-colons: “… switching to non-carbon-based power for transportation and heating; and using carbon-free fuels, such as hydrogen gas, synthesized using “clean electricity.”” I did not intend to suggest using hydrogen gas directly as a transportation fuel. I agree with you, I do not want to drive around sitting on top of such a flammable material!

      I do believe, nevertheless, that hydrogen gas could be used in the synthesis of methanol from carbon dioxide; the resultant methanol then could be used as a component in liquid transportation fuel.

      I write these articles in part to encourage American’s to lead by example. Our credibility and our sovereignty will be enhanced when we do.

      There are credible, academic proposals being floated to establish Global Courts and Global Trusteeships “to ensure the ecological integrity of global common property resources (the air we breathe, for example), while providing a fair allocation and distribution of benefits and burdens among humans and between humans and other species.”

      If we cherish our personal and National freedoms, we are well-advised to become more proactive in promoting and adopting new technologies and new and renewable fuels to generate power and use it wisely.




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