Carbon Emissions

In 2009, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in China—the world’s leading emitter—grew by nearly 9 percent. At the same time, emissions in most industrial countries dropped, bringing global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use down from a high of 8.5 billion tons of carbon in 2008 to 8.4 billion tons in 2009. Yet this drop follows a decade of rapid growth: over the 10 previous years, global CO2 emissions rose by an average of 2.5 percent a year—nearly four times as fast as in the 1990s. Increasing temperatures and the resulting melting ice sheets and rising sea levels demonstrate the destructive effects of the carbon accumulating in the atmosphere.

Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Fossil Fuel Burning, 1751-2009

Emissions in many wealthier countries fell in 2008 and 2009 as the global recession took hold. In the United States, CO2 emissions shrank by nearly 10 percent from 2007 to 2009, from a high of 1.58 billion tons of carbon to 1.43 billion tons, the lowest level since 1995. Emissions from oil, which is largely used for transportation, declined by nearly 11 percent, while those from coal, which is mainly burned to generate electricity, fell by over 13 percent.

The United Kingdom’s CO2 emissions fell by over 10 percent from 2007 to 2009. German emissions dropped by 8 percent, and French emissions dropped by 5 percent. Japan saw its emissions decline nearly 12 percent over the two-year period. (See data.)

At the same time, CO2 emissions in the world’s most populous countries, China and India, continued to grow rapidly. China’s emissions rose to 1.86 billion tons of carbon in 2009, representing nearly a quarter of global emissions from fossil fuel burning. With average annual emissions growth of 8 percent over the past decade, China overtook the United States in 2007 as the world’s leading CO2 emitter. India’s emissions grew by close to 5 percent a year over the past decade; the country passed Russia in 2007 to become the world’s third largest emitter.

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