Global Warming Fact: More than Half of All Industrial CO2 Pollution Has Been Emitted Since 1988

, director of science & policy | December 15, 2014, 1:14 pm EDT
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By the end of this year, more than half of all industrial emissions of carbon dioxide since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution will have been released since 1988 — the year it became widely known that these emissions are warming the climate.

I recently learned this startling fact from my colleague Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute. Heede drew upon historic estimates of annual global carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacturing by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) and the 2014 annual update on the global carbon budget and trends published by the Global Carbon Project (GCP), an international scientific research consortium studying the global carbon cycle.

The GCP estimates that in 2014, we will release a record 37 gigatons (GT) of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere from burning coal, oil, and natural gas, and manufacturing cement. That’s a 2.5 percent increase over emissions in 2013, itself a record year. This brings the total industrial carbon dioxide emissions since 1751 to an estimated 1480 Gt by the end of this year. And, remarkably, more than half of these emissions, 743 Gt, or 50.2 percent, have released just since 1988.

More than half of all industrial carbon dioxide emissions have been released since 1988. Image: Union of Concerned Scientists

More than half of all industrial carbon dioxide emissions have been released since 1988. Image: Union of Concerned Scientists

1988: When the evidence and risks of human-caused warming first became widely known.

By the 1950s, leading scientists had become concerned about the potential impacts of rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. By the 1960s and 1970s, they were communicating these concerns to U.S. policymakers.

But 1988 is the year in which the scientific evidence for and risks of human-caused climate change became widely known, and when initial steps were taken to address the problem. It is the year when NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the U.S. Senate that human-caused warming was underway, testimony that was reported on the front page of the New York Times. It is also the year that then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, campaigning for president, pledged that as president he would “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.”

Members of Congress introduced The National Energy Policy Act of 1988, intended to “address the issue of global warming and develop strategies to respond to environmental problems caused by increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases produced in burning fossil fuels…” And it is the year when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to provide international policymakers with ongoing scientific information on the issue.

In short, 1988 is a milestone year because by then policymakers and the fossil energy industry surely knew enough about the climate risks from the continued reliance on fossil fuels to begin to invest in the process of making the necessary transition to low-carbon energy. Instead, far too many chose to invest instead in casting doubt about the scientific evidence of climate change and to avoid limits on heat-trapping emissions — and continue to do so today.

Much time has been lost since 1988. Today the task of reducing carbon emissions is far greater and more urgent.

I spent the past week at the international climate negotiations (COP 20) in Lima, Peru, where delegates from industrialized and developing nations debated the scope and ambition of the agreement to be reached a year from now in Paris. It is an achingly slow and challenging process, necessary but wildly insufficient to respond to the science that as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry put it in his speech in Lima “is screaming at us, warning us, compelling us – hopefully – to act.”

We can’t afford to lose any more time.

Climate responsibilities don’t fall to governments alone. Divestment campaigns and shareholder actions are now shining a bright spotlight on the responsibilities of fossil energy companies. What have these companies done since 1988 in light of the scientific evidence of climate change resulting from the use of their products — and what should they be expected to do? Heede, Harvard University historian of science Naomi Oreskes and I are providing our views this Wednesday in a poster at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual meetings in San Francisco. Here’s the abstract:

“The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change established the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” among nations, signaling the recognition that industrialized nations who had produced the greatest share of historic emissions bore particular responsibility for avoiding dangerous interference with the climate system. But climate responsibilities can also be distributed in other ways as well.

Recently published data show that just 90 entities have produced the fossil energy responsible for 63 percent of the world’s industrial emissions of CO2 and methane; of these, 50 are investor owned companies such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Peabody Energy. As the scientific evidence became clear, many of these investor-owned companies sought sow doubt about the science linking their products to global warming, and today are seeking new and increasingly carbon-polluting sources of fossil fuels.

It is still possible for these companies to contribute productively towards a solution. Significant progress in reducing emissions and limiting climate change could be achieved if companies 1) unequivocally communicate to the public, shareholders and policymakers the climate risks resulting from continued use of their products, and therefore the need for restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions; 2) firmly reject contrary claims by industry trade associations and lobbying groups; and 3) accelerate their transition to the production of low-carbon energy. Evidence from history strongly suggests that a heightened societal focus on their climate responsibilities may hasten such a transition.”

The full poster is viewable here. If you’re coming to AGU, come by and share your views.

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  • Ben Franklin

    half of ALL carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels and using cement – not sure why the author put the word “industrial” in the title other than for emotional impact. These are OUR emissions. In the US, about 1/3 of those emissions come from driving our cars and flying on planes (transportation). Residential and commercial use of electricity and natural gas for heating is a major contributor. These are OUR emissions, this article is not about “industrial” emissions at all. We need to change our wording to not sound reactionary and to accept our own contribution. We are using the fuel (and the cement for that matter).

    • Peter Frumhoff

      “Industrial” is a common (and decidedly unemotional) shorthand for distinguishing carbon emissions from fossil fuels and cement from emissions resulting from deforestation and other changes in land-use.

      • Ben Franklin

        Maybe I am less familiar with the literature then you are. I do stand corrected that you are not talking about “ALL” emissions – as you point out there are agricultural CO2 emissions that are not related to the graphic presented. However, I searched a few select chapters the IPCC AR4 and AR5 and did not find the word “industrial” as a term used for anything other than the common meaning – related to industry. I also checked back with the Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, where “industrial” is used to differentiate combustion sources of CO2 into different categories: electrical generation, commercial, industrial, transportation. Even using a search engine, the references for “industrial carbon dioxide emissions” referred me to discussions of the industrial segment of combustion sources as used in the Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Please
        let me know where the common use of “industrial” to refer to transportation, commercial and residential emission is used.

        I am persistent here because conservatives I talk to view UCS as a liberal source. UCS may place themselves as a non-partisan
        source of analysis, but they simply are not viewed that way. I believe it is in the best interest of UCS to attempt to present analyses without bias, and I believe that using the word “industrial”
        to discuss all CO2 emissions from combustion does not help with this goal. “Industrial” has a meaning, and describing all CO2 emissions from combustion and cement production as “industrial” is not accurate – I would ask you to simply view a bit deeper why you think it is an accurate term in this situation and see if it has anything to do with you positively or negatively you view “industry”. Then ask if other
        people may use this word differently than you do.

  • Fran Rametta

    Would it not be prudent for the 90 entities that produced 63% of industrial emissions to upgrade their status to renewable energy companies? Our planet belongs to them as well as to the rest of us.

  • odin2

    There is no empirical evidence that CO2 emissions are a significant cause of atmospheric global warming. The theory that catastrophic global warming is caused by CO2 emissions is based on an unproven theory and computers which overemphasize CO2’s role in climate change and de-emphasize the role of clouds, solar cycles, ocean cycles and other natural causes of climate change. These computers have been notoriously wrong almost all of the time (when compared to real world data) and have been compared to a sports team that played the entire season without winning a game. Computers that model an imaginary planet and are programmed with guesses of a few of the many variables affecting climate are not data or empirical evidnce.

    During the last ice age CO2 levels fell to 180 ppm and plants started to shut down. If CO2 levels had reached 150 ppm or lower, plants would have died off and all plant and animal life on the planet would have died. We currently have global CO2 levels at just under 400 ppm. Green houses regularly keep CO2 concentrations at 1000-1200 ppm because the plants grow better. In the past, CO2 levels have been at several thousand parts per million and plants and animals thrived. US submarines try to keep CO2 levels below 8,000 ppm. Federal OSHA standards set CO2 maximums at 5,000 ppm. We are much closer to being CO2 deprived than we are being threatened by too much atmospheric CO2. Plants thrive on more CO2- that is a good thing. CO2 is not a pollutant. It is a colorless and odorless gas that comprises only .04% of the atmosphere. The most predominant greenhouse gas is water vapor.

    The world has not experienced atmospheric global warming in the past 18 years despite increasing CO2 emissions during this period. If CO2 was a direct and significant cause of global warming, we would have experienced global warming during the 18 year pause. We did not.

    Climate change is natural and has been occurring since the formation of the planet. The 18 year pause just proves that the skeptics were right all along-natural causes of climate change are more powerful than the insubstantial effects that human generated CO2 has on the world’s climate. The hysterics’ alarms over CO2 causing catastrophic global warming have been described accurately as the flea wagging the dog.

    Proof positive that CAGW is about power, politics and greed is the fact that every time the facts change, the CAGW cult moves the goal posts . They have at least 65 excuses for the more than 18 year pause in global warming and the failure of the CAGW climate models. The CAGW cult blames any unusual (but normal) climate event on global warming with no scientific proof. This is often done with a scary picture or one that pulls on the heart strings, and the text of the article will say “could be caused”, “is consistent with”, or “may be caused by” global warming. This is code for we have no scientific evidence but we want to scare you so we can tax CO2 and promote our political agenda.

    The real Deniers are the CAGW believers who deny the scientific studies showing that CO2’s role in global warming is not substantial and that nature (clouds, solar cycles, ocean cycles, and other natural causes) controls climate change. The CAGW believers deny nature. Ironic isn’t it that so many who worship Gaia deny nature?

    • NicholB

      So is it less than half then, or more, mr viking god? Or are you a salon-berserker that just copy-pastes the same bit if wrong climate denial everywhere without even reading what the actual article was about? Frothing at the mouth, about all this warmist hysteria. Viking gods don’t exist. The real vikings are moving to the future. IKEA is selling solar panels.

      • odin2

        Ad hominem attacks and mockery are effective propaganda techniques but they are not impressive. Provide empirical evidence that CO2 emissions have been a substantial cause of global warming at any time before 18+ years ago.

    • Guest

      You keep saying that to yourself, as a climate scientist who specialises in Earth Observeration I’d say data from Envisat is enough to make me sure we are impacting climate change. Even something as minor as the grounding of aircraft for a few days greatly changes the Albedo of our atmosphere which cause noticable changes in climate (for a few days).

      You quote data like a weapon, but it’s not, there are lots of things that effect climate but most are linked to human activity, you cannot blame the Sun as it has done very little of note in the last 11 years, there is very little to blame astronomically as very little has happened in space over the last 11 years, the boringness of the Sun if anything should lead to an average cooling if anything. But the data clearly shows a gradual warming of the oceans (a heat sink and the best way to gauge temperature).

      If you want to form an arguement go an study a masters in climate science, GIS, EOS or some other Remote sensing course. Then come back and show me evidence from a satellite that doesn’t support a man made impact on terrestrial climate.

      I’ll read anything that’s published by a respectable journal or university.

      • odin2

        No empirical evidence huh?

  • Paulie777

    When I was in the second grade I wrote a poem entitled “Pollution.” It went like this.
    What to do about pollution? We’ve got to find a solution. We had just better PICK IT UP! I was chided by the adult in the classroom because she thought I had gotten my parents help with the poem because she thought it was too advanced for a second grader. She never even addressed the content. That was in 1971. The adult human is a pathetic creature, myself included. Nothing is going to change, and if I need to idle my car a little longer, I don’t hesitate to do so. Write all the educated tripe you want, but that rising bar graph is just getting started. I wish it was different, but alas, its not. “A toast, to the betterment of the human condition!”