America's Share of the Climate Crisis

Greenpeace report on historic emissions shows why America is morally obligated to lead global response to global warming

Feature story - May 27, 2009
Greenpeace has released a new report, “America’s Share of the Climate Crisis: A State-By-State Carbon Footprint,” to highlight the United States’ responsibility for taking the lead to solve global warming given its outsized role in creating the problem in the first place. Using data from the Carbon Analysis Indicators Tool maintained by the World Resources Institute, the report examines state-by-state carbon dioxide emissions produced by fossil fuel combustion from 1960 to 2005 and compares those emissions to 184 other countries of the world.Historically, no nation has emitted more global warming pollution than the United States. This places upon the U.S. a moral obligation to lead the global response to the climate crisis. Click image to view a larger size.

Global Warming pollution in the US: Why we must lead

Over the past 150 years, the U.S. has emitted 328,264 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (MtCO2), the primary greenhouse gas. That amounts to 29% of total global  emissions. Meanwhile, no other country in the world emitted more than 8% of global emissions. China, the world's second biggest global warming pollution emitter and the favorite scapegoat of those who seek to delay action on global warming, trails far behind the U.S. with just 92,950 MtCO2 over the same time frame. You can check out this spreadsheet for all of the states' and nations' emissions numbers.

Per capita emissions in the U.S. have historically been far above most countries in the world, as well. In 2005, the United States emitted 23.5 tons of global warming pollution for every man, woman and child in the country. While much attention has been paid to the rising emissions of developing nations like China and India, the per capita emissions in the U.S. and across the developed world still far exceed those nations' emissions levels. U.S. per capita emissions in 2005 were more than four times greater than China's (5.5 tons per person), and almost 14 times India's (1.7).

If the nearly 3 billion people living in India and China were to reach per capita emissions levels equivalent to the U.S., there would be no chance of us averting the worst effects of global warming. This is why it's incumbent upon the U.S. to help lead the way out of this crisis.

The nations of the world will meet this December in Copenhagen to negotiate a new international climate treaty to improve upon the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Central to the negotiation will be national targets, and ultimately a global target, for greenhouse gas pollution reductions. The United States must arrive in Copenhagen ready to show real commitment to lowering our emissions, or else there is little chance the rest of the world will make cuts themselves.

Key Report Findings

Some key findings of the "America's Share of the Climate Crisis" report.

Primary sources of US emissions

The overwhelming majority of global warming pollution in the U.S. comes from burning fossil fuels for energy. In 2007, CO2 emissions from combustion of coal, oil and natural gas accounted for 80% of total U.S. global warming pollution, with total CO2 emissions accounting for over 85% of U.S. global warming pollution. Power plants are the nation's largest source of carbon dioxide emissions from energy consumption, contributing 42% of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion and 34% of global warming

emissions overall.

The transportation sector is the next largest source of carbon dioxide, contributing 33% of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion and 26% of global warming emissions overall. The remaining 25% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from energy sources comes from the direct consumption of fossil fuels in the commercial, industrial, and residential sectors.

US Climate Policy has fallen short, Action needed

Unfortunately, the United States' policy response to global warming since 1960 hasn't been as consistent or as rapid as the growth in its pollution emissions during the same period.

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence demanding swift action to halt  global warming pollution, the U.S. Congress and previous administrations have largely failed to rise to the challenge of global warming. To date, global warming pollution remains unregulated at the federal level in the United States and the U.S. continues to lag far behind other industrialized countries (and many developing countries) in responding seriously to the threat.

The Obama Administration initially showed some promising signs of a willingness to truly tackle global warming, but has since failed to take aggressive action based on what the science says is necessary to adequately deal with the crisis. Greenpeace has withdrawn its support of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, which is currently working its way through the House of Representatives, because of the inordinate amount of influence polluting industries have had in shaping the bill.

We are now calling on President Obama to provide the leadership that has been lacking in the U.S.'s response to global warming. We can build a clean energy economy and create millions of green jobs in the process, and we don't need any new coal or nukes plants to do it. Our Energy [R]evolution report shows how.

If Congress won't take action to stop global warming, the EPA's "endangerment finding," an official determination by the agency that greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health and welfare, provides the Obama Administration the means to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Write to the EPA NOW and urge them to give President Obama the power to rescue the climate.

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The map image above comes from the forthcoming paper:

Gurney, K.R., D. Mendoza, Y. Zhou, M Fischer, S. de la Rue du Can, S. Geethakumar, C. Miller (2009) The Vulcan Project: High resolution fossil fuel combustion CO2 emissions fluxes for the United States, accepted to Env. Sci. & Tech. Learn more: http://www.purdue.edu/eas/carbon/vulcan/plots.php

Take Action

If Congress won't take action to stop global warming, the EPA can still regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Write to the EPA NOW and urge them to give President Obama the power to rescue the climate.