CO2 Emissions: Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions in 2021

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

August 18, 2021

Attaining a zero carbon footprint isn’t impossible, you just need to know what CO2 emissions are, and understand the many ways to reduce them worldwide.

Want to skip ahead and lower your carbon emissions right now? Click Here

Looking up at the forest canopy in a dense rainforest

What are CO2 Emissions and What Do CO2 Emissions Do to the Environment?

CO2 is the scientific notation for carbon dioxide, a molecule that contains one atom of carbon and two atoms of oxygen. It’s a critical part of the Earth’s atmosphere because vegetation needs it to survive… but the amount is important. Because it’s a common byproduct of combustion, the process of burning carbon-base molecules (such as gasoline or wood), it’s been increasing over the past few decades.

Now, we are living in a time where the excess amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere are causing harmful, damages to the planet. Why? Because the concentration levels are way over the mark, and the planet can’t process it. Plus, CO2 holds more heat, making the temperatures rise.

Outlining the Major Sources of CO2 Emissions… What Releases It?

The US Environmental Protection Agency defines greenhouse gases as gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. The most common two are CO2 and methane, however there are many others.

Volcanoes, all living animals, some microscopic organisms emit CO2… but for the most part, animals (mostly humans) generate CO2 in large amounts thanks to advancements in the quality of life (like having clean running water and electricity). In 2019, the United States alone released about 5,130 million metric tons (5,654 million US tons) of CO2… and the U.S. isn’t even the world’s largest producer! China produces about twice as much as the U.S.

Fossil fuels are primarily composed of hydrogen and carbon, and most greenhouse gas (GHG) production in the US comes from burning fossil fuels.

Greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for all sorts of problems facing our planet, from climate change to dying corals. Fortunately, there are ways to limit the CO2 you generate.

Sources of Greenhouse Gases

  • Carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, is primarily produced from burning fossil fuels and industrial processes (such as manufacturing cement). It is also produced by certain deforestation practices (such as burning forests to clear them) and other land uses.
  • Methane is produced by cows as they digest their food, but that’s not the biggest contributor. It is also produced during the production and transportation of coal, natural gas, and oil. Moreover, methane is the worst greenhouse gas for holding high levels of heat.
  • Nitrous oxide is primarily produced by fertilizers and other agricultural sources (although burning fossil fuels produces some), and there are other sources as well.
  • Fluorinated gases are gases that contain the element fluorine. These are particularly problematic because there are no natural sources of fluorinated gases – all of them are man made. As such, nature does not have a readily available means of dealing with them, and some can last in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Additionally, they tend to have very high GWPs. Fluorinated gases were created as replacements for refrigerants that were destroying the ozone. Unfortunately, while they don’t generally destroy the ozone, they’re amongst the most potent and long-lasting GHGs.

Scientists use a standard called the Global Warming Potential (GWP) to determine how powerful the effect of a given greenhouse gas is relative to CO2. Methane, for example, is about 30 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As a result, although about five times more CO2 is being released, methane’s effect is about six times as high.

According to the International Energy Agency, global CO2 emissions related to electricity generation have been on the rise for at least 20 years. The slow but steady shift from fossil fuels to renewable energies will help eliminate this emission source.

Tracking Annual Global CO2 Emissions by Country: Carbon Footprint and Carbon Emissions by Country

The top 10 GHG producers emit more than two thirds of all GHGs emitted on Earth. Think about that for a minute… the top three emitters produce 16 times more GHGs than the bottom 100!

Incidentally, your carbon footprint includes additional greenhouse gases and carbon sources like fluorinated gases and methane. But, by focusing on CO2 alone, you can significantly lower your carbon footprint and eventually achieve a zero footprint.

8 Billion Trees graphic image displaying the amount of metric tons of carbon emissions emitted measured in thousands by country using factories with smog clouds of various colors from left to fight; China 9.7, United States 5, Russia 1.6, India 2.1, Japan .9, and Iran .8 for the year 2020

CO2 Emissions by Country

As you might have expected, the largest two emitters of CO2 are the world’s largest two economies – the US and China. What you might not have realized is that China produces about twice as much CO2 as the United States and four times as much as the third largest emitter, India.

Europe has a comparably large economy, but thanks to robust environmental regulations the EU releases far less CO2 than America. In fact, America produces about a seventh of the world’s CO2 despite having only about a twentieth of its population.

US CO2 Emissions—Why So Much?

US CO2 emissions are actually decreasing due to environmental efforts and the increasing affordability of renewable energy. Currently, only 20 percent of energy production comes from nuclear or renewable energy (like hydroelectric power). However, that number is expected to rise.

In 2019, the US released 5.9 billion metric tons of CO2. Fossil fuel consumption accounts for the lion’s share, although it should be noted that methane and fluorinated gases have a disproportionate effect on the global warming due to intrinsic factors. Fluorinated gases are generally high-GWP gases (gases that have a greater effect per unit on global warming).

How Can You Know Your CO2 Footprint? Use a CO2 Emissions Calculator

There are various types of CO2 emissions calculators, such as this one from the US Environmental Protection Agency. Knowing your personal impact is the first step in reducing your footprint.

Want to Get Your Footprint Fast? Click Here

Breakdown of CO2 Emissions: Per kWh, Per Year, Per Capita, Electricity and More

While there are a variety of factors that go into the efficiency of various power sources across the world, we can use the US data (which is reliable and readily available) as a guide when it comes to clean energy. The US Energy Information Administration uses pounds (of CO2 per kWh) to show which fuels produces the most CO2 per unit of energy. Coal is much “dirtier” than natural gas (2.21 vs 0.91 lbs/kWh). However, petroleum is not generally used as a fuel in power plants (for which we should be thankful).

Chart CO2 Emissions Per Capita

Although most people think the United States has traditionally produced the most CO2 per capita, it doesn’t. And recently, Saudi Arabia has overtaken the United States. See a chart of the top CO2 emissions per capita here.

European nations such as France and Germany are currently competitive with Japan on a per capita CO2 emissions basis. The per capita measure can be somewhat misleading, as countries with small populations can have misleadingly high scores. For example, the US produces 15.2 tons of CO2 per capita, but Kuwait, with a smaller population, has a per capita measurement that is higher. In fact, on a per capita basis, the US ranks 16th and China ranks 42nd despite the two combining for nearly half of the world’s CO2 production.

8 Billion Trees infographic image displaying the improvement of air quality with a decline in unhealthy air days using a graph with the year on the x-axis starting at 2000 and the amount of unhealthy air days on the y-axis starting at 2076 decreasing by 62 percent to 799 by year 2018 illustrated by buildinging covered by a cloud that decreases

CO2 Emissions by Year

While Europe, the US, and Russia have generally decreased their emissions over the last 20 years, China and India have steadily increased theirs. In fact, China is on track to double the highest amount of CO2 ever released in a year by the US, within the next decade. As China’s economy has grown, so, too, has its energy demands. China has about four times the population of the US; if China’s per capita CO2 emissions were to reach US levels, it would be an unmitigated disaster.

CO2 Emissions Since the Industrial Revolution

Although the dawn of the Industrial Revolution heralded a critical milestone in the advancement of modern civilization, it also heralded the beginning of a new era – an era in which mankind could meaningfully and permanently harm his environment.

CO2 Emissions – Volcanoes vs. Humans

Some climate change skeptics have erroneously claimed that volcanoes produce more CO2 than mankind ever can. Actually, according to (part of NOAA), there are individual states in the US that produce more CO2 in a year than all of the world’s volcanoes combined. Volcanoes do release carbon dioxide, but not in amounts that are comparable to what’s produced by man.

CO2 Emissions from Burning Wood

Deforestation is a major source of CO2. Forests sequester carbon dioxide (vegetation is a massive carbon sink, along with the ocean), meaning they trap it and use it. The carbon remains stored in the forest rather than going into the atmosphere and causing problems. But when forests are burned, the carbon stored in tree trunks, leaves, and roots is ultimately released back into the atmosphere. And, burning wood for energy can release up to 30% more CO2 than coal.

CO2 Emissions Per Gallon of Gas

A gallon of gas releases about 20 pounds of CO2… every gallon.

How Much CO2 Is Released Each Year by Humans? (Average Carbon Footprint Per Person, Average American Carbon Footprint)

Brace yourself, in 2019, the total CO2 emissions generated by humans was a whopping 72,973,008,783,194 pounds (33.1 billion metric tons, or about 36.5 billion US tons. For comparison, the heaviest man made object ever weighed was launchpad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which weighed a measly 5.3 million pounds.

We produce a lot of CO2. In fact, the average carbon footprint per person is four tons, per year. That’s the amount averaged out… but for Americans, the average footprint is a whopping 20 tons per year. The Earth simply can’t cope with that much extra CO2.

What Does CO2 Do to the Environment?

CO2 is a major contributor to Global Warming and climate change We’ve seen the ‘results’ of this in increased wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters. The ocean (as the world’s major carbon sink) is capable of mitigating the effects of Global Warming to an extent by absorbing some CO2, but this leads to changes in ocean chemistry that can be catastrophic to marine ecosystems.

The combination of these changes can ultimately lead to bleaching events, which have the potential to destroy entire ecosystems. It is difficult to overstate the devastation caused marine ecosystems by global warming and marine acidification.

Carbon Neutral Companies—What You Can Do Right Now to Attain Zero Carbon Footprint By 2050

Although CO2 emissions remain a huge environmental problem, there is hope. Responsible corporations like Google have unilaterally decided to go carbon neutral, and responsible citizens like you can do your part to gain a zero carbon footprint.

Buy Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets are the fastest and surest way to become carbon neutral. And some forestry programs allow you to erase MORE carbon than you generate. Because trees sequester carbon better than anything else on Earth, attaining a zero carbon footprint for the planet by 2050 is not impossible.

Forestry offsets allow you to sequester your own CO2, plus 8 Billion Trees includes additional benefits by protecting existing forests from destruction and rehabilitating animal habitats. It’s just one of the ways we are committed to being “carbon plus” with everything we do!

Make Lifestyle Changes

Other changes you can make to lower your footprint include reducing electricity and vehicle use. To learn more about the ways you can erase your footprint in one week, click here.

If humans have the power to destroy the environment, we also have the power to heal it. By doing your part today to reduce carbon emissions, we can help protect the planet for tomorrow.