Co2 Emissions of the United States: Only Behind China in Leading Co2 Contributors in the World

By Vivian Duncan | Updated on September 13, 2021

The CO2 emissions of the United States lands the country as the second largest contributor in the world,2 only behind China. Emitting 400 billion metric tons, it is hard to ignore the impact the USA has on the climate crisis the world faces today, making it crucial that the USA reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. But, the good news is that America is showing improvements… the question is whether those changes will be enough in the face of the largest producer, China. Without regulations, China will continue to undo efforts of the rest of the world.

United States CO2 Emissions: How Much Carbon Dioxide Does the US Produce? What are the Annual CO2 Emissions?

In 2019, the CO2 emissions of the United States were 5.28 billion tons (the global total was 33.1 billion tons). The average CO2 emissions of the United States over the course of the 10 year period (2009-2019) was not far off at 5.44 billion tons. Thankfully, the United States has seen a slight reduction in emissions since 2007 which had a peak of 6.13 billion tons.1

The United States emissions weren’t always so large. A century earlier, the United States only contributed 1.48 billion tons to the global footprint. That is a 3.8 billion ton difference. For a 50 year comparison, in 1969, emissions were at 4.02 billion tons (1.26 billion tons lower than numbers in 2019).1

How Much CO2 Emissions Does the Average American Emit?

Several factors contribute to CO2 emissions, from the production level to the consumer level. In 2019, the average American emitted 16.06 tons of CO2. This is an improvement from 2009’s average of 17.93 tons and 1969’s 19.37 tons. The peak emissions the average American emitted was 22.13 tons in 1973, but that number has risen over the past years, and now the average is around 20 tons.

Even though the average American’s emissions have gone down over the past 50 years, the United States is not in the clear. For comparison, in 1919, the average American’s emissions were 13.77 tons.1

From these numbers, we can determine that as a country, the United States has made incremental improvements over the past 20 years. But in comparison to where the numbers were 100 years ago and even further back, 200 years, the average American was not producing even one ton of CO2 emissions. Obviously, this change was related to the industrial revolution, but now the task will be to find ways to erase the emissions generated.

8 Billion Trees infographic image displaying the greenhouse gases with a factory graphic image in the middle with circles of gases emitting into the atmosphere from left to right; carbon dioxide from fossil fuels combustion, methane, nitrous oxide, and other carbon dioxide all add up to 6,667 million metric tons of carbon dioxide

United States Greenhouse Gases and Sources

There are many sources of CO2, but the primary ones are things that Americans use everyday, including transportation, energy use, industry, and food.

Electricity/Heat

In 2018, 27% of the CO2 emissions of the United States (as well as other greenhouse gas emissions such as methane and nitrous oxide) came from electricity. Electricity includes coal, natural gas, nuclear, and renewable energy. The largest greenhouse gas contributor from electricity in the United States in both 2018 and 2019 was coal.

Transportation

In 2018, 28% of emissions came from transportation, which had increased largely due to the increase in vehicle miles traveled from 1990 to 2018 (a 46.1% increase). Passenger cars and small trucks are the largest culprits, but emissions also come from ships, trains, airplanes, boats and other engines, basically anything that employs fuel combustion.2

Industry

In 2018, 22% of emissions came from industrial production of materials. Not only does industrial production heavily rely on electricity, but it also contributes to natural gas leaks, the use (and burning) of fossil fuels, and chemical reactions.2

Commercial/Residential

In 2018, 12% of emissions came from the commercial and residential sectors. This is largely due to an increase in electricity consumption, but also the management of wastewater, trash, refrigerants, and more. 2

Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use

In 2018, 10% of emissions came from agricultural activities, such as raising livestock, growing crops, and other agricultural management practices. The management of livestock manure needs to see improvement, as emissions caused by this agricultural practice has increased by 58.7% since 1990.2

What Can the United States Do to Reduce Carbon Emissions?

The COVID-19 crisis of 2020 posed a difficult challenge for all of us. But one thing the pandemic taught us is that it is possible to reduce our emissions collectively and get back on track with the commitments the United States made in the 2016 Paris Agreement.

According to Green Media Tech, in 2020, there was a four percent decrease of transportation emissions, a 2.8 percent decrease of emissions from electricity, and a 1.6 percent decrease of industrial emissions, all numbers that were not projected to occur. This could be attributed to more people staying at home and a slow down of the economy.

But the economy does not need to come to a halt for the United States to reduce its pollution. This could be viewed as an opportunity to rethink a sustainable future for both the earth and our economy. For example, renewable energy has a much lower carbon footprint than other forms of electricity, while also costing less than coal and gas sources.

You Can Do Your Part Too!

From the electricity you use and your vehicle’s mileage, to the products you buy, everything you do has a footprint. Reducing CO2 emissions starts with making better choices:

  • Reduce your electricity usage or switch to solar power
  • Drive less frequently and less miles
  • Think before you buy
  • Extend the life of your items by finding ways to reuse and upcycle
  • And more…

But even after doing all of these things, you still have a carbon footprint (just a lower one). Try calculating yours by using an ecological footprint calculator. One way to make up for your carbon footprint is to purchase a tree planting carbon offset that goes toward planting trees or helps find renewable energy sources. There are top carbon offset providers out there… we just need to use them.


References

1Our World Data. United States: What are the country’s annual CO2 emissions? 2021. Web. 16 April 2021. <https://ourworldindata.org/co2/country/united-states?country=~USA#what-are-the-country-s-annual-co2-emissions>.

2United States Environmental Protection Agency. Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. 2021. Web. 16 April 2021. <https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions>.