CO2 emissions

Page - July 20, 2010
The primary human source of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is from the burning of fossil fuels for energy production and transport. Another leading cause is deforestation, which is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world's cars, trucks, planes and boats combined.

In order to stop global warming, dramatic cuts in all CO2 emissions must be achieved: at least 25 to 40% below 1990 levels by 2020, and at least 80 to 95% below 1990 levels by 2050.

What are fossil fuels?

Oil, coal and natural gas are called fossil fuels because they are formed from the remains of plants and animals living millions of years ago. All fossil fuels are made up of hydrocarbons, and release carbon dioxide when burned.

Currently, fossil fuels are the primary source for almost 80 percent of the industrial world's energy.  They are non-renewable resources that will eventually run out.  However, if we want to avoid dangerous climate change, we need to switch to renewable energy sources as soon as possible, rather than waiting for oil wells to run dry.

Who does the most burning?

Industrialized nations have large economies that have burned fossil fuels for a long time - for this reason, they are responsible for most of the human-caused carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, all nations are responsible to one degree or another.

Among the world's top economies, the US still stands out as a top polluter. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the US is responsible for almost a quarter of global emissions of carbon dioxide. Other top emitters include China, Indonesia, and Brazil.

But to look at carbon dioxide emissions only by country is not enough. Ultimately, CO2 emissions come from people. For example, someone driving a gas-guzzler is burning more fossil fuels than someone with a more efficient car. Someone eating a diet heavy in meat will create more CO2 emissions than someone eating less meat. As individuals, we all have a responsibility to protect the climate by making smart daily choices, pushing corporations to create market solutions, and demanding that governments protect our shared climate.

Deforestation and CO2 Emissions

Fire used to clear forests in Sumatra, Indonesia, for palm oil plantations © Greenpeace/Novis

Fire used to clear forests in Sumatra, Indonesia, for palm oil plantations © Greenpeace/Novis

Most CO2 emissions from deforestation stem from the destruction of tropical forests. While some forests are logged, many are simply burned to make room for industrial agriculture like cattle ranching and palm oil plantations - two leading causes of tropical deforestation. This burning emits massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Logging can also raise the risk of fire by drying out and heating up forests by removing trees that create shade and store moisture. In addition, logging activities - from the deliberate burning of leftover "slash," to accidental sparks from machinery - increase unnatural fires and CO2 emissions.

As global warming leads to hotter, drier summers, northern forests like the Canadian Boreal may experience bigger, more frequent fires. The Boreal, which locks up billions of tons of carbon, is the single largest storehouse of carbon on land. If the Boreal burns, global warming could increase, raising the likelihood of more fires. This vicious cycle of CO2 emissions from forest fires and global warming has been called a ticking "carbon bomb."

More Information

The Greenpeace Forests for Climate proposal

Report: Turning Up the Heat: Global Warming and the Degradation of Canada's Boreal Forest

Report: How the Palm Oil Industry is Cooking the Climate

Report: Africa's Forests - Vital for Our Climate