Carbon Intensive Industries – The Industry Sectors That Emit The Most Carbon

Carbon Intensive Industries – The Industry Sectors That Emit The Most Carbon

At this point, there is no question that we are the main drivers of climate change. The way we live, our consumption and economic needs, basically most human activities release deadly greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere. The 2014 graphic below provides a visual timeline of when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began acknowledging the human contribution to global warming.

Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides a great visual representation of our contribution to the warming of the planet
Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

There’s also a statement signed by 18 major scientific organizations confirming human-caused climate change: “Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.”

Of the many greenhouse gases emitted by humans, carbon dioxide or CO2 is the one widely recognised, and it’s also one of the most damaging. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, carbon dioxide continues to be the biggest greenhouse gas that is emitted from the use of fossil fuels and “from direct human-induced impacts on forestry and other land use, such as through deforestation, land clearing for agriculture, and degradation of soils.” A report revealed that human activity is responsible for adding as much as 110.5 million tons of carbon dioxide daily into the atmosphere. NASA too noted that our industrial activities as humans have “raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to 400 parts per million in the last 150 years.”

Related Post: 14 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Climate Change, Global Warming and the Environment

Carbon Intensive Industries - The Industry Sectors That Contribute The Most Carbon Emissions

Almost all countries acknowledge the issue of climate change, however even after signing the Paris Agreement in 2016, many are still finding it difficult to cut back on their carbon emissions. In an article I wrote a week ago, Germany, considered to be a leader in climate change policies, remains strongly dependent on coal, one of the dirtiest sources of energy and a major contributor to carbon emissions.

But, in order to understand the connection of our impacts to climate change and why countries are having difficulty reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, the carbon emissions intensive industries must be analyzed.

At the outset, it must be understood that while human activities result in smaller carbon emissions as compared to natural sources, it is the steady increase in the volume of these emissions that has thoroughly upset the natural balance and led to disastrous effects on the environment and the planet as a whole.

To illustrate, there is a natural carbon cycle. Carbon is emitted by the world’s oceans, plants and living things. These emissions are also absorbed back into the environment, which in effect, keeps the natural balance. However since humans have extracted fossil fuels which have caused emissions to steadily increase since the Industrial Revolution, only 40 percent of human emissions can actually be reabsorbed by nature. The remaining 60 percent stays in the atmosphere and is responsible for trapping heat in the atmosphere, leading to the warming of the planet.

So where do all of these human-induced carbon emissions come from? 

Here are the top five carbon-intensive sectors:

1. Energy Production

The burning of fossil fuels for energy production is single-handedly the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions. In a report published by the United National Environment Programme (UNEP), the “supply and use of fossil fuels accounts for about three-quarters of mankind’s carbon dioxide emissions.” The energy created from the combustion of fossil fuels is used to produce heat, electricity and generate power for homes, offices, manufacturing and construction, among others. The images below from the showcases the amount of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses emitted for energy production vis-a-vis other sectors.

Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions By Sector. Credit- Our World in Data
Global carbon dioxide emissions by sector from data from FAO 2017. Credit: Our World in Data
The contributions of economic sectors to global Greenhouse Gas emissions. Credit- From the FAO report 'Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Agriculture, Forestry and other Land Use' 2016
The contributions of economic sectors to global greenhouse gas emissions. Credit- From the FAO report ‘Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Agriculture, Forestry and other Land Use’ 2016.

Energy production depends on three main types of fossil fuels: coal, natural gas, and oil. These fossil fuels are responsible for 43 percent, 36 percent and 20 percent respectively of carbon emissions. In 2017 alone, there was an unexpected surge in carbon emissions due to coal burning in China as a result of the drought that drained its rivers and affected its hydropower generation.

Since energy production is the sector most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, our collective efforts to reduce energy waste in our homes, switch to energy-efficient products and put pressure on our governments to invest in renewable energy will go a long way to tackling climate change.

2. Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU)

Agriculture, livestock-raising, deforestation and the conversion of forest lands all contribute to substantial carbon emissions. AFOLU impacts on carbon emissions are two-fold. For example, the clearing of forests for conversion into agricultural lands resulted in the decreased number of trees which can absorb carbon dioxide emissions. At the same time, animal agriculture releases not just carbon dioxide but other greenhouse gases. According to Skeptical Science, “producing beef releases four times more greenhouse gases than a calorie-equivalent amount of pork, and five times as much as an equivalent amount of poultry.”

Related Post: The Future of Food: Would You Eat Lab-Grown Meat?

Carbon Intensive Industries - The Economic Sectors That Emit the Most Carbon Emissions

3. Industry

The industrial sector that includes mining, manufacturing, and construction has produced as much as 21 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in 2014. According to a report, the five industry categories of paper, food, petroleum refineries, chemicals and metal/mineral products are responsible for contributing the most greenhouse gases. This is because the use and combustion of fossil fuels are essential to the various steps of manufacturing and industry processes. As an example, the conversion of limestone in the cement industry requires the combustion of fossil fuels in order to generate heat.

4. Transport

Another big culprit of carbon emissions is the transportation sector. According to a report, road transport is responsible for 72 percent of the sector’s carbon dioxide emissions, marine shipping producing 14 percent and global aviation 11 percent of emissions. Plus, there are still indirect emissions as a result of the transportation of goods.

Related Post: 5 Things You Need to Know When Buying a Green Car

Carbon Intensive Industries - The Industries that Emit the Most Carbon

5. Residential, Commercial and Institutional Sectors

This main sources of greenhouse gases for this sector are electricity consumed, energy used for heating and cooling, refrigeration, and so on. Data shows that as much as 3.38 million gigagrams of carbon dioxide was released by this sector in 2010.

Aside from these top five sources of human-induced carbon emissions, other sources include solid waste disposal, handling and incineration; and other sources such as fossil fuel fires and other anthropogenic sources.

It’s clear that in order for our countries to meet their Paris Agreement obligations and achieve sustainability, they must tackle these carbon-intensive activities. What climate change actions do you want to see your country take that they aren’t doing so already? Leave a comment and let’s start a discussion.

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