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Visualizing Changes in CO₂ Emissions Since 1900

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Visualizing Changes in CO₂ Emissions Since 1900

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Visualizing CO₂ Emissions Since 1900

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Leaders from all over the world are currently gathering at the Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP 27) in Egypt to discuss climate action, and to negotiate the commitments being made by countries to the global climate agenda.

This visualization based on data from the Global Carbon Project shows the changes in global fossil fuel carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from 1900 to 2020, putting the challenge of fighting climate change into perspective.

Cumulative CO₂ Emissions vs. Rate of Change

Global climate change is primarily caused by carbon dioxide emissions. Fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas release large amounts of CO₂ when burned or used in industrial processes.

Before the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840), emissions were very low. However, with the increased use of fossil fuels to power machines, emissions rose to 6 billion tonnes of CO₂ per year globally by 1950. The amount had almost quadrupled by 1990, reaching a rate of over 22 billion tonnes per year.

Currently, the world emits over 34 billion tonnes of CO₂ each year. Since 1751, the world has emitted over 1.5 trillion tonnes of CO₂ cumulatively.

Cumulative CO2 Emissions

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, average global growth in fossil CO₂ emissions had slowed to 0.9% annually during the 2010s, reaching 36.7 gigatons of CO₂ added to the atmosphere in 2019.

However, in 2020, global lockdowns led to the biggest decrease in CO₂ emissions ever seen in absolute terms. Global fossil CO₂ emissions decreased by 5.2% to 34.8 gigatons, mainly due to halts in aviation, surface transport, power generation, and manufacturing during the pandemic.

Since then, emissions have approached pre-pandemic levels, reaching 36.2 gigatons added to the atmosphere in 2021.

Biggest Emitters, by Country

Asia, led by China, is the largest emitter, with the continent accounting for more than half of global emissions.

RankCountry 2020 CO₂ Emissions
(Millions of metric tons)
#1🇨🇳 China 10,668
#2🇺🇸 United States4,713
#3🇮🇳 India 2,442
#4🇷🇺 Russia 1,577
#5🇯🇵 Japan 1,031
#6🇮🇷 Iran745
#7🇩🇪 Germany644
#8🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia626
#9🇰🇷 South Korea598
#10🇮🇩 Indonesia590
#11🇨🇦 Canada536
#12🇧🇷 Brazil467
#13🇿🇦 South Africa 452
#14🇹🇷 Turkey 393
#15🇦🇺 Australia 392

CO₂ emissions from developing economies already account for more than two-thirds of global emissions, while emissions from advanced economies are in a structural decline.

Coal Power Generation Set for Record Increase

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, more than 130 countries have now set or are considering a target of reducing emissions to net zero by 2050.

Much of the slowdown in emissions growth in the 2010s was attributable to the substitution of coal—the fuel that contributes most to planet-warming emissions—with gas and renewables. In addition, during the previous COP26 held in Glasgow, 40 nations agreed to phase coal out of their energy mixes.

Despite that, in 2021, coal-fired electricity generation reached all-time highs globally and is set for a new record in 2022 as consumption surged in Europe to replace shortfalls in hydro, nuclear, and Russian natural gas.

As leaders meet in Egypt for the world’s largest gathering on climate action, it will be up to them to come up with a plan for making their environmental aspirations a reality.

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Environment

The Most Polluted Cities in the U.S.

What are the most polluted cities in the U.S. according to data from the American Lung Association’s 2024 State of the Air Report?

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Teaser image for an infographic showing the most polluted cities in the U.S. according to the American Lung Association's 2024 State of the Air report.

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The following content is sponsored by National Public Utilities Council

The Most Polluted U.S. Cities in 2024

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths annually, and could cost the global economy between $18–25 trillion by 2060 in annual welfare costs, or roughly 4–6% of world GDP.

And with predictions that 7 in 10 people will make their homes in urban centers by mid-century, cities are fast becoming one of the frontlines in the global effort to clear the air.

In this visualization, we use 2024 data from the State of the Air report from the American Lung Association to show the most polluted cities in the United States.

What is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is a complex mixture of gases, particles, and liquid droplets and can have a variety of sources, including wildfires and cookstoves in rural areas, and road dust and diesel exhaust in cities. 

There are a few kinds of air pollution that are especially bad for human health, including ozone and carbon monoxide, but here we’re concerned with fine particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 microns, or PM2.5 for short. 

The reason for the focus is because at that small size, particulate matter can penetrate the bloodstream and cause all manner of havoc, including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and chronic pulmonary disease. 

The American Lung Association has set an annual average guideline of 9 µg/m³ for PM2.5, however, the World Health Organization has set a much more stringent limit of 5 µg/m³.

The 21 Worst Polluted Cities in the U.S.

Here are the top 21 most polluted cities in the U.S., according to their annual average PM2.5 concentrations:

RankCity, StateAnnual average concentration, 2020-2022 (µg/m3)
1Bakersfield, CA18.8
2Visalia, CA18.4
3Fresno, CA17.5
4Eugene, OR14.7
5Bay Area, CA14.3
6Los Angeles, CA14.0
7Sacramento, CA13.8
8Medford, OR13.5
9Phoenix, AZ12.4
10Fairbanks, AK12.2
11Indianapolis, IN11.9
12Yakima, WA11.8
13Detroit, MI11.7
T14Chico, CA11.6
T14Spokane, WA11.6
15Houston, TX11.4
16El Centro, CA11.1
17Reno, NV11.0
18Pittsburgh, PA10.9
T19Kansas City, KS10.8
T19Las Vegas, NV10.8

Note: The American Lung Association uses Core Based Statistical Areas in its city and county rankings, which have been shortened here to the area’s principal city, or metro area in the case of the Bay Area, CA.

Six of the top seven cities are in California, and four in the state’s Central Valley, a 450-mile flat valley that runs parallel to the Pacific coast, and bordered by the Coast and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. As a result, when pollution from the big population centers on the coast is carried inland by the wind—cities #5 and #6 on the list—it tends to get trapped in the valley. 

Bakersfield (#1), Visalia (#2), and Fresno (#3) are located at the drier and hotter southern end of the valley, which is worse for air quality. The top three local sources of PM2.5 emissions in 2023 were farms (20%), forest management / agricultural waste burning (20%), and road dust (14%). 

Benefit to Economy

While the health impacts are generally well understood, less well known are the economic impacts.

Low air quality negatively affects worker productivity, increases absenteeism, and adds both direct and indirect health care costs. But the flip side of that equation is that improving air quality has measurable impacts to the wider economy. The EPA published a study that calculated the economic benefits of each metric ton of particulate matter that didn’t end up in the atmosphere, broken down by sector. 

SectorBenefits per metric ton
Residential Woodstoves$429,220
Refineries$333,938
Industrial Boilers$174,229
Oil and Natural Gas Transmission$125,227
Electricity Generating Units$124,319
Oil and Natural Gas$88,838

At the same time, the EPA recently updated a cost-benefit analysis of the Clean Air Act, the main piece of federal legislation governing air quality, and found that between 1990 and 2020 it cost the economy roughly $65 billion, but also provided $2 trillion in benefits

Benefit to Business

But that’s at the macroeconomic level, so what about for individual businesses?

For one, employees like to breathe clean air and will choose to work somewhere else, given a choice. A 2022 Deloitte case study revealed that nearly 70% of highly-skilled workers said air quality was a significant factor in choosing which city to live and work in.

At the same time, air quality can impact employer-sponsored health care premiums, by reducing the overall health of the risk pool. And since insurance premiums averaged $7,590 per year in 2022 for a single employee, and rose to $21,931 for a family, that can add up fast. 

Consumers are also putting their purchase decisions through a green lens, while ESG, triple-bottom-line, and impact investing are putting the environment front and center for many investors.

And if the carrot isn’t enough for some businesses, there is the stick. The EPA recently gave vehicle engine manufacturer Cummins nearly two billion reasons to help improve air quality, in a settlement the agency is calling “the largest civil penalty in the history of the Clean Air Act and the second largest environmental penalty ever.”

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