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

December 15, 2014
Peter Frumhoff
Director of Science and Policy and Chief Climate Scientist

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.

About the author

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Peter C. Frumhoff is director of science and policy and chief climate scientist at UCS. He guides organization-wide strategies to bring robust scientific expertise to bear on strengthening public understanding and public policies; guides innovative science and policy initiatives and post-doctoral fellowships; and serves as senior liaison with the scientific community, policymakers and the media.