Net Zero

A breakdown of the industries producing the most carbon across the world

Analysing who is generating the most greenhouse gasses is essential to prioritise where change must happen next.
Linda Jiang
5 mins

Last month the IPCC released its latest alarming report, urgently calling for a cut in emissions or else global temperature rise will far exceed 1.5 °C. Unless global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are halved by the end of the decade, climate change could spiral out of control.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Every year, human activities generate over fifty billion tonnes of emissions. While carbon dioxide isn’t the only GHG, it is the most abundant, accounting for 74% of all GHG emissions. Burning fossil fuels generates most CO2 emissions, which persists in the atmosphere for up to 1000 years.

The next most abundant GHG is methane. It’s 25 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere and accounts for just over 17% of all emissions. Producing natural gas, livestock and food waste all generate methane emissions.

Nitrous oxide and fluorinated gasses account for the remaining 8% of emissions. Nitrous oxide is a by-product from fertilisers and car exhaust fumes. Fluorinated gasses are used in cooling systems, and are 1000 times more potent than CO2 and, as a result, are highly regulated.

What countries are the biggest emitters?

Just five countries account for over 60% of all global emissions - China (28%), The United States (18%), India (7%), Russia (5%) and Japan (3%). Wealthier nations produced the lion-share of GHG emissions, but more often than not, the poorest countries suffer the worst impacts of climate change.

Emissions by Industry 

Energy Emissions

Last year, carbon emissions from the energy sector reached a record high, increasing 6% from 2020. After a global decline in emissions due to the covid-19 pandemic, they surged to 36.3 gigatonnes. Electricity and heat production created the most emissions and accounted for 46% of the global increase in emissions.

Coal emissions have grown to 15.3 gt, with oil generating 10.7 gt and natural gas creating 7.5 gt. Over 40% of 2021 carbon emission increase was from coal. 

Transport Emissions

Burning fossil fuels for fuel and generating electricity results in the transport sector producing 16.2% of the world's emissions. Scientists estimate that if the road transport sector switched to entirely electric energy sources, global emissions could fall by almost 12 per cent. 

Over 60% of road transport emissions are from personal vehicles, with the other 40% from freight vehicles. In the UK, a quarter of emissions come from transport - amounting to 1.8 tonnes of CO2 per person per year.

Emissions From Farming and Food

A quarter of all GHG emissions are from food production, and agriculture is the biggest contributor of methane and nitrous oxide. The majority of emissions are from rearing livestock (31%), followed by growing crops (27%), land use (24%) and the supply chain (18%).

Alarmingly, six% of global GHG emissions are from food waste. A quarter of all food produced every year is discarded, highlighting a major area where improvements are needed. In contrast, the entire aviation industry accounts for 2% of global GHG emissions. 

Emissions from the Financial World

While the finance sector, including banks and investors, may not directly produce carbon, they finance projects that do. A report from 2020 found the industry directly funded emissions 700 times greater than their GHG contribution

A significant lack of transparency defines finance, and their acknowledgements of emissions rarely include those produced through their investments. Without full accountability, banks and investors won’t cut their emissions enough to ensure climate change is controlled. 

In the UK, the finance sector produced over 805 million tonnes of CO2e emissions in 2019. If the industry were a country, it would be the ninth biggest polluter in the world. UK investors continue to finance environmentally-damaging projects and are profiting from the climate crisis.

Technology Emissions

As more and more technology is integrated into our daily lives, the industry has grown, along with its emissions. Current estimates place tech emissions between 2 - 3.9%, a figure that’s likely to rise without significant interventions and adaptations.

The technology industry is making efforts to clean up its act. Half of all corporate procurement of renewable energy is from technology companies, and technology has increased energy efficiency and reduced emissions across other industries.

The European Green Digital Coalition, led by the European Commission and endorsed by the United Nations Environment Programme, is moving the industry towards a sustainable future. The pledge involves developing green digital alternatives to classic emission heavy tech and reaching carbon neutrality by 2040.

Experts estimate that digitisation of homes and businesses could reduce electricity usage by almost a quarter. The pledge was signed by over 20 companies, including Microsoft and Vodafone.

Summary

The energy industry continues to produce the most emissions across the world - a fact that’s unlikely to change as the population grows and electricity demand soars. Analysing who is generating the most greenhouse gasses is essential to prioritise where change must happen next. 

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