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Visualizing the Flow of Energy-Related CO2 Emissions in the U.S.

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Visualizing the Flow of Energy-Related CO2 Emissions in the U.S.

Visualizing the Flow of Energy-Related CO2 Emissions in the U.S.

This was originally posted on the Decarbonization Channel. Subscribe to the free mailing list to be the first to see graphics related to decarbonization with a focus on the U.S. energy sector.

In 2021, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from the generation and consumption of energy reached 4.9 billion tonnes.

To better understand how various energy sources and their end-uses contribute to carbon emissions, this graphic visualizes the flow of energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S. using carbon flow charts by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

What are Energy-Related CO2 Emissions?

Energy-related CO2 emissions refer to the release of carbon dioxide as a result of the combustion of fuels to produce energy. They arise through the direct use of fossil fuels for transport, heating, or industrial needs, as well as the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation.

To provide some context, non-energy-related CO2 emissions are those that result from industrial chemical reactions, deforestation, and agricultural activities.

As the largest contributor to carbon emissions, however, energy-related CO2 emissions account for approximately 85% of all emissions in the U.S. which we will now explore in more detail.

U.S. Energy-Related CO2 Emissions in 2021

Followed by a pandemic-driven decline in 2020, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. increased by 325 million tonnes in 2021, marking the largest-ever annual increase.

Energy SourceCO2 emissions in million tonnes, 2021% of total energy-related emissions
Petroleum2,22345.7%
Natural Gas1,63733.7%
Coal1,00320.6%
Solar, Wind, Nuclear, Hydro, and Biomass00%
Total4,863100%

When we follow the CO2 emissions from the above fossil fuels to their end uses, transportation and electricity generation stand out as the biggest contributors.

In 2021, these two sectors accounted for more than 68% of all energy-related emissions in the country, roughly emitting 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2.

End-Uses CO2 emissions in million tonnes, 2021% of total energy-related emissions
Transportation1,80137.0%
Electricity Generation1,53731.6%
Industrial Uses96519.8%
Residential Uses3216.6%
Commercial Uses2394.9%
Total4,863100%

When it comes to transportation, petroleum accounted for 97% of emissions, largely due to motor gasoline and diesel consumption. On the other hand, coal and natural gas made up 99% of CO2 emissions related to electricity generation.

Due to its high carbon intensity, coal’s contribution to power sector emissions may also be of particular interest. As the share of coal rose from 20% to 23% in the U.S. electricity mix in 2021, electricity emissions from coal also increased for the first time since 2014.

Naturally, this shift raised the overall energy-related CO2 emissions in 2021. It also caused a 4% hike in the carbon intensity of the country’s electricity.

Lowering Emissions

To avoid the impacts of climate change, many countries and companies are working towards decarbonization across all sectors, which can largely be facilitated by reductions in energy-related carbon emissions.

Accounting for nearly 70% of all energy-related CO2 emissions, transportation and utilities can be important pillars in these efforts.

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Charted: Global CO2 Emissions by Income Group

We visualize global CO2 emissions by income group, showing the impact of different wealth brackets on carbon generation.

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charting CO2 emissions by income

Global CO2 Emissions by Income Group

From a historical perspective, the current demand for natural resources has surged to unprecedented levels and continues to escalate—for both essential needs like food, clothing, water, housing, infrastructure, and non-essential consumption in everyday life.

This surge has been accompanied by annual increases in CO₂ emissions. Consumption, however, differs radically depending on income.

In this graphic, we visualize global CO₂ emissions in 2019, broken down by income group. This data comes from the Emissions Inequality Calculator, created by the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Wealthier Families Contribute More to CO₂ Emissions

In 2019, the world’s richest 1% (with an average income of $310K) were responsible for 15% of global CO₂ emissions.

The annual emissions of the 1% in 2019 canceled out the carbon savings of 1 million onshore wind turbines. In contrast, the bottom 50% (with an average income of $2,000) were responsible for only 8% of CO₂ emissions.

Here is the breakdown of emissions by income group in 2019, with average income in 2011 purchasing power parity USD:

Income GroupAverage income (USD)Share of CO₂ Emissions
Top 1%$310K15%
Next 9%$90K34%
Middle 40%$16K43%
Bottom 50%$2K8%

The reason for such disparity lies in consumption. For example, fashion is one of the most demanded industries in the world’s high-income countries. According to the UN, the fashion industry produces between 2% to 8% of global carbon emissions.

Another major contributor is the transport sector, which is more prevalent in developed countries. Greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector alone have more than doubled since 1970, with around 80% of this increase coming from road vehicles.

Higher-income families also spend more on food, contributing to CO₂ emissions. The production, transportation, and handling of food generates significant CO₂ emissions. In addition, when food ends up in landfills, it also generates methane.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, each year, U.S. food loss and waste embodies 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent GHG emissions (excluding landfill emissions)—equal to the annual CO₂ emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants.

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