Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States
Overview of greenhouse gases and emissions per capita in the United States. Are they prepared to meet net zero targets and invest in the energy transition?
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Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States
Overview of greenhouse gases and emissions per capita in the United States. Are they prepared to meet net zero targets and invest in the energy transition?
Published:
Loading reading time...
Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States
Overview of greenhouse gases and emissions per capita in the United States. Are they prepared to meet net zero targets and invest in the energy transition?
Published:
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What percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions does the United States produce?

The United States produced 12.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 (the latest date with complete emissions data). This amounted to 5.51bn metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, or MtCO₂e. These emissions represented a decrease from 2019 by -8.9%.

In the period from 1990 to 2020 their emissions have decreased by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of -0.21% and the United States has contributed 16.8% of global greenhouse emissions.

Countrythe United States
Population332m
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in USD$23tr
Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 20205.51bn
Change in Emissions since 2019-8.9%
Percentage of Total Emissions (2020)12.3%
Rank – Emitters in 20202
Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions since 1990196bn
Compound Annual Growth – Emissions since 1990-0.21%
Percentage of Total Emissions (1990-2020)16.8%
GDP Per Capita (USD)$69.3k
Emissions Per Capita16.6

In 2020, the United States was the world’s 2nd largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Other big emitters include China, India, Russia and Japan.

Emissions per capita in The United States – average household carbon footprint

The population of the United States is 332m. On a per capita basis, they produce 16.6 tonnes of CO2e per person, placing them 13th out of 191 on emissions produced per capita. The biggest per capita emitters are Qatar, Turkmenistan, Kuwait and Bahrain.

What is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States?

Gases

78.5% of emissions in the United States came from Carbon Dioxide (CO2), 13.6% came from Methane (CH4), and 4.7% came from Nitrous Oxide (N2O).

Sectors

The sector that produced the most emissions in 2020 was the energy industry, producing 4.74bn of GHG emissions, constituting 86.2% of total.

The second and third largest emitting sectors were agriculture and industrial processes, producing 6.9% and 4.4% of total GHG in the United States.

Energy

The industry that produced the most energy related emissions was the electricity/heat industry, producing 1.77bn of GHG emissions, constituting 32.2% of total emissions.

The second and third largest emitting sectors were transportation and building, emitting 1.56bn and 517m tonnes of GHG each.

Land Use Change and Forestry

Land use change and forestry (LUCF), such as deforestation and conversion of natural ecosystems to agricultural or urban areas, can have a significant impact on carbon emissions.

  • Trees and other vegetation absorb and store carbon through the process of photosynthesis, and when they are cut down or burned, that stored carbon is released into the atmosphere.
  • Deforestation and other forms of land use change can also reduce the ability of ecosystems to absorb and store carbon in the future. Additionally, the conversion of land for agriculture or urban development can lead to the release of carbon stored in the soil.
  • On the other hand, sustainable forestry practices, such as reforestation and afforestation, can help to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in trees and other vegetation.

In the case of the United States, LUCF had a positive impact on the United States’s emissions, decreasing their carbon footprint by 216m tonnes.

After accounting for land use change and forestry, the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2020 was 5.29bn metric tonnes.

How vulnerable is the United States to the impact of climate change?

The Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN) Index

The ND-GAIN Index measures countries’ vulnerability to global challenges, including climate change, and their readiness to improve resilience.

The United States scores 67.4 on the ND-Gain Index and is classified in the ‘low vulnerability and high readiness’ category of climate change preparedness.

The index aims to assist businesses, governments, and communities in prioritising investments for a more efficient response to global shifts.

It is measured by combining two main components:

  1. Vulnerability: This evaluates a country’s vulnerability to environmental risks and its ability to adapt. It considers health, food and water availability, infrastructure, and ecosystem services. A higher score indicates greater vulnerability to environmental challenges.
  2. Readiness: This measures how well a country can leverage investments to mitigate climate change. It considers economic stability, governance, technology, and infrastructure. A higher score means a country is better prepared to implement resilience strategies.

This ranking helps identify areas where resources and adaptation strategies can be most effectively directed to mitigate risks and enhance resilience.

By combining these dimensions, the index provides a comprehensive approach to measuring countries’ ability to cope with the impacts of climate change.

Low vulnerability and high readiness in the United States

In terms of readiness to adapt to climate change, The United States ranks in the top 10% group. Globally, the average readiness score is 0.424, with the United States posting a score of 0.656.

They show the greatest strength in governance aspects, while their performance in economic aspects requires improvement.

  • Governance readiness refers to the political, legal, and regulatory aspects influencing a country’s adaptation to climate change, including stability, corruption control, and law enforcement.
  • Economic readiness refers to the business environment and its capacity to adapt to climate change, emphasizing the importance of a supportive regulatory framework for adaptation initiatives.

Regarding vulnerability to climate change, The United States falls into the top 10% category. Compared to the global average vulnerability score of 0.431, the United States has a score of 0.309.

Their resilience is most notable in infrastructure areas, yet they face significant challenges in habitat.

  • Infrastructure vulnerability refers to the weaknesses in the coastal protection, transportation, and energy systems, which are critical for building resilience against climate change. Coastal protection safeguards land and ports from rising sea levels and storms. Reliable transportation infrastructure is essential for corporate value chains and can be disrupted by extreme weather. Energy infrastructure resilience ensures a continuous supply of energy during natural disasters, maintaining economic stability.
  • Human habitat refers to the growth of cities and their capacity to withstand climate change impacts like floods and heatwaves. Improved infrastructure enhances urban resilience to extreme weather events.

The formula to calculate the ND-GAIN Index is

GAIN Index=(Readiness Indicators−Vulnerability Indicators+1)×50GAIN Index=(Readiness Indicators−Vulnerability Indicators+1)×50

In this formula:

  • The Readiness Indicators are measured on a scale of 0 to 1, where a higher score means that the readiness is better.
  • The Vulnerability Indicators are also measured on a scale of 0 to 1, but a lower score indicates better vulnerability in this case. 
  • The difference between the Readiness and Vulnerability scores is calculated and then incremented by 1. 
  • Finally, the result is multiplied by 50 to convert the GAIN Index score to a range of 0-100, where a higher score means the situation is better.

Is there a correlation between greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth in the United States?

In 2020, the gross domestic product (GDP) in the United States declined by -2.2% from the previous year, with the economy moving from $21.4tr to $20.9tr. During the same period, carbon emissions decreased by -8.9%. Over the ten-year period from 2010 to 2020, GDP grew 38.8%, while emissions decreased by -14.7%.

To put this into context, the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of GDP in the United States over the past ten years was 3.3%, and the CAGR for greenhouse gas emissions was -1.6%.

Sources

World Resources Institute, 2022. Climate Watch Historical GHG Emissions. [online] Washington, DC. Available at: https://www.climatewatchdata.org/ghg-emissions.

Global Carbon Project, 2023. Supplemental data of Global Carbon Budget 2023 (Version 1.1) [Data set]. Global Carbon Project. Available at: https://doi.org/10.18160/gcp-2023.

UNFCCC, 2023. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Data. [online] Available at: https://di.unfccc.int.

Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative, 2023. ND-GAIN Country Index. [online] Available at: https://gain.nd.edu.

FAO, 2022. Land-Use Change and Forestry or Agriculture indicators from FAOSTAT Emissions Database. [online] Available at: https://www.fao.org/faostat/.

OECD/IEA, 2022. CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion. [online] Available at: https://www.iea.org/reports/co2-emissions-in-2022.

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