The Global Carbon Footprint

Fossil Fuels 

Since 1751 approximately 392 billion metric tonnes of carbon have been released to the atmosphere from the consumption of fossil fuels and cement production. Half of these fossil-fuel CO2 emissions have occurred since the mid 1980s.[Carbon dioxide information analysis centre]

carbon-footprint-globeIt’s widely reported that the World emitted another 38.2 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2015, an 8% increase on 2014’s 35.6 billion tonnes, raising the global average of CO2 from fossil fuel burning to 5.3 tonnes per person and adding another 10% to the 392 billion tonnes released over the last 200 years.

In 2014 the top five CO2 emitting nations, responsible for 2/3rds of all fossil fuel carbon emissions, were China (10.5bt), USA (5.3bt), European Union (3.4bt), India (2.3bt) and Russia (1.7bt).

Whilst five of the biggest emitters relative to population were Gulf states: Qatar (39.13t), Kuwait (28.33t), United Arab Emirates (21.3t) Oman (18.92t) and Saudi Arabia (16.8t).

Australia (17.3t), The USA (16.5t) and Canada (15.9t) came next whilst Kazakhstan (14.2t) and Russia (12.4t) came 9th and 10th in per capita emissions.

China in 20th (7.6t) whilst the European Union, which came 23rd (6.7t) carried some big emitters such as the Netherlands (9.4t), Germany (9.3t), Belgium (8.7t) and Poland (7.8t). Only Spain and France’s emissions matched the global average of 5 ton. India, the 4th largest emitter by country, produced only 1.8t per head putting it in 42nd place, 5th from bottom and beaten only by Indonesia, Philippines, Pakistan and Nigeria. [wikipedia]


So whilst the industrialised nations are the principal emitters of CO2 from fossil fuels, the residents of the Gulf states have a bigger carbon footprint than any other geographical region. Qataris in particular have 2½ times the carbon footprint of American’s and 43 times that of Pakistanis.

Land Use and Managementgreenhouse-gas-dfm

Land use changes, in particular deforestation, where 2/3rd’s occurs to supply just five global commodities [cant see the woods for the trees], contributes a further 6.5 billion tonnes (11%) to global GHG emissions. Methane from livestock contributes a further 16% whilst Nitrous Oxide from fertilizer use contributes another 6%. [EPA]

So whilst fossil fuel burning (65%) remains the main contributor to GHG emissions, land use changes and management practices are responsible for 33% of global GHG emissions. When added together, fossil fuels and land use GHG emissions raise the average global carbon footprint to 7 ton per person per year.

The Paris Agreement: 20/20 vision

If global emissions continue to increase at 7% per year, as developing nations catch up on the industrialized; then by 2020, when most nations expect to start implementing the Paris agreement, global emissions will be at 65 billion tons a year and global per capita footprints at 8.5t per person. We will have added another 250 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere pushing the planet towards if not over the long term temperature goal of Article 2:

holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,

Article 4 of the Paris agreement states that “In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.” However even if the World went on to reduce it’s net emissions to zero by 2050, it will have added a further 900 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere in the process: sufficient to double atmospheric concentrations and cause a mean global temperature rise of 3-6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Such a scenario would lead to accelerated melting of the Worlds glaciers and cause a global sea level rise in the tens of metres. It is similarly, based on the evidence to date, the most likely scenario.

To avoid catastrophic climate change the World must significantly reduce the use of fossil fuels with immediate effect. It must develop and deploy, on a grand scale, alternative renewable solutions (wind, solar, water, biomass) and it must actively restore the tropical forests lost since 1990. It must further increase global forest extent by at least another 10% and it must continue to do so for the rest of this century and beyond.

It must do this because it did not act to arrest the problem 30 years ago and if it waits another 30 it will be too late.. Admittedly climate was not on the international agenda but deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction were [Our Common Future 1987]. Despite the warnings of the Bruntland report and the the subsequent 1992 Rio Declaration from Earth Summit I, over a third of global deforestation has occurred during this period and the World is on the brink of the biggest extinction event since the dinosaurs. What to do?

A 75% reduction in fossil fuel use

If we cut our current fossil fuel emissions (38.2 billion tons CO2) to reach a net emissions target of 10 billion tons CO2 by 2030: a global carbon footprint of < 1.5t per capita. This would result in the emission of 200 billion tons of CO2, and we might meet the Paris agreement threshold of 2 degrees C. If we take till 2040 to reach the baseline of 10 billion tons then 350 billion tons of CO2 emissions will result and we will likely miss the 2 degree threshold. Wait till 2050 however and 500 billion tons of CO2 emissions will occur, we will not be able to keep global mean temperate increase below 2 degrees C and in all probability it will have already reached and exceeded that by 2050. We will still need strategies to mitigate the 10 billion tons we produce as a base line as well as the 400 billion historical emissions but the longer we delay, the more difficult and painful it will become.


Deforestation and Agriculture

The EPA estimate that one third of GHG emissions originate from agriculture; 6 billion tons as CO2 (11% GHG emission), whilst methane from livestock production contributes another 16%(UNFAO estimate 14.5%) and Nitrous Oxide from fertilizer use 6%. In total Agriculture contributes the equivalent of 18 billion tons of CO2 per year to GHG

The largest single cause of CO2 emissions is tropical forest deforestation. The UNFAO estimates that in the last 27 years 1.29 million km2 of forest, an area equivalent to France, Spain and Portugal combined, has been lost. Much of this forest has been felled to grow soybean, palm oil and beef to supply global markets.

An end to deforestation would thus dramatically reduce the CO2 contribution of Agriculture bringing it down to or even below a billion tons per year. A 50% reduction in the beef and dairy industries would similarly reduce  agricultural GHG emissions by another 8%.

Together with reducing Fossil fuel emissions to 10 billion tons these measures would bring global GHG emissions to under 25 billion tons. We would still be adding to atmospheric concentrations of GHG’s, but at half the rate we are now, so still sufficient to maintain our course towards a climate catastrophe. A catastrophe we cannot avoid until we reduce our net emissions to zero and take steps to recapture and store the 400 billion tons of historical carbon emissions.

Reforestation and Afforestation

To recover the 129 million hectares of forest lost since 1990 in the same number of years would require planting a new forest the size of Switzerland every year for the next thirty. A forest that would, in 100 years, recapture most of the carbon emission from the original deforestation (200 billion tons).

Afforestation, the creation of new forests on agricultural and other land would also capture some of the carbon emissions derived from the burning of fossil fuels during the same period. However as afforestation is not as effective as reforestation a plantation of 260 million hectares, the size of the Kazakhstan, would be requires to capture the same 200 billion tons of CO2.

Over a 100 year period these two forests projects, which collectively would cover an area the size of India and Pakistan, would recapture the 400 billion tons of historical CO2 emissions. world-map

However even with these massive mitigation projects in place, a 75% reduction in fossil fuel emissions and a 50% reduction in methane emissions (an outcome that requires 50% of the World that is not vegetarian to become so) by 2030, the World will still go on to produce 1.5 trillion tons of GHG emissions during the 21st Century.

This is the reality of our 21st Century Global Carbon Footprint.

Climate Catastrophe Time Line

2030…. The World has cut its fossil-fuel emissions by 75% to 10 billion tons a year. Similarly 50% of the World’s meat eaters have become vegetarian and we have stopped all deforestation and bought all commercial forests into zero carbon management: our emissions are down to 20 billion tons a year…

forests-carbon01We will have reforested enough of the tropics to cover Portugal and the Spanish region of Galicia  and similarly planted new forests across the World’s other regions which would collectively cover Germany. However none are established sufficiently to make any significant contribution to mitigation, so the global temperature is still rising and we are, despite these efforts, 50% worse off than when we started: we now have 600 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere to deal with and are adding another 20 billion every year.



2040…  The tropical forests  have expanded and now cover the plains of Spain whilst the new forests has grown to cover an area encompassing Germany and Poland. The good news is the earlier forests are now capturing carbon: perhaps 10%, so 4 billion tons of the 40 billion they will eventually capture. The bad news is global emissions now top 800 billion tons.



2050… Despite having now reforested the tropics with sufficient wood to cover Portugal and Spain, we are but halfway there, there is still the equivalent of France to plant before we recover what was lost in the last two decades of the 20th century. Similarly the new forests now cover an area that swallows the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary and Austria. As with the tropical forest we are still not there, there is still Belarus, Ukraine and Romania to plant.

If our fossil fuel emissions are still at 10 billion tons a year then another 100 billion tons of CO2 will have been added to the 800 billion already in the atmosphere. If meat eaters are still insisting they would rather eat their bacon than save it, then they will have similarly added another 100 billion tons in the form of methane. On the plus side the first of the forests will likely have captured 25% (10 billion tons) of their carbon potential and the second 10% ( 4 billion tons), so our efforts may have been sufficient to keep the total global carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation below the one trillion tons mark but by 2099 another 500 billion tons of GHG’s will have been added to the atmosphere.


 The End of the Fossil Fuel age

However; if  on reaching 2030 the World has achieved a 75% reduction in fossil fuel emissions,  adopts a zero emissions target for the next ten years, and similarly a vegetarian diet, then by 2040 the fossil fuel age will come to an end leaving a 700 billion ton carbon footprint on the atmosphere. As long as the World continues with the reforestation and afforestation programs then by the end of the 21st century this could be down to 400 billion tons.. but then pigs might fly

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