The Azimuth Project
Carbon emissions (Rev #9)


Quick figures

In 2007 people on the Earth burnt 8 gigatonnes of carbon. Since the population was roughly 6.6 billion, this means the average person burnt 1.2 tonnes of carbon. But the average American burnt 5.2 tonnes, while the average Chinese burnt 1.3 tonnes, and most people burnt less.

Carbon versus carbon dioxide

Be careful: some people talk about carbon while others talk about carbon dioxide. When you burn a ton of carbon you get about 3.67 tons of carbon dioxide. Neglecting this can cause big mistakes:

• Joe Romm, The biggest source of mistakes: carbon versus carbon dioxide. A factor of 3.67 makes a big difference when discussing climate.

Just remember: C has atomic mass 12, O has atomic mass 16, so CO2 has atomic mass 12+16+16=44, so a molecule of carbon dioxide is

44/12=3.666...44/12 = 3.666...

times as heavy as the atom of carbon that was burned to form it.


Scientists use GtC as an abbreviation for ‘gigatonne of carbon’. A gigatonne is a billion metric tons. A metric ton is about 10% bigger than an American ton, but if you’re just trying to get rough idea of things and you’re used to American units, you don’t need to worry about this too much.

A gigatonne is also 10 1510^{15} grams, also known as a petagram.

2007 UN data

This chart lists the carbon dioxide emissions of countries worldwide:

This chart includes only CO2 emitted by fossil fuel burning and cement manufacture, not deforestation, change in land use, etc. Methane and other greenhouse gases are not included. Currently the list is based on data from 2007, taken from this report:

  • United Nations Statistics Division, Millennium Development Goals indicators: Carbon dioxide emissions (CO2), thousand metric tonnes of CO2 (collected by CDIAC).

One can also see per capita figures here, apparently computed using information from the same source.

The entire world is listed as having emitted 29.3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in 2007. This corresponds to burning 8 gigatonnes of carbon. Since the population was roughly 6.6 billion, this means the average person emitted 4.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide by burning 1.2 tonnes of carbon.

The top eight countries are:

countrygigatonnes of CO2 in 2007percentagetonnes per capita
United States5.8419.9%18.9
United Kingdom0.541.84%8.9

2010 Data from the German Federal Government

The following table compares the carbon dioxide emissions of several contries in 1990 and 2004, the data was compiled and provided by the German government:

carbon dioxide emissions 1990 and 2004

2008 IEA data

On 6 October 2010, the International Energy Agency released its own data set (calculated using slightly different methods than CDIAC) for 2008 emissions that listed about 140 countries:


The following chart shows the emission of CO 2CO_2 by Germany according to the German federal government (Bundesamt für Statistik):

Carbon Dioxide by Source Group


Quoting from the summary of this report:

In June 2007, China released its National Climate Change Program, a plan to address climate change. The Program outlines activities both to mitigate GHG emissions and to adapt to the consequences of potential climate change. Within the Program, perhaps most challenging is China’s goal to lower energy intensity 20% by 2010. The country fell short of its annual milestones, set in energy policies, in both 2006 and 2007; in July 2008, Premier Wen Jiabao and the State Council warned that meeting its energy intensity and emission reduction goals “remained an arduous task.” Related goals include more than doubling renewable energy use by 2020, expansion of nuclear power, closure of inefficient industrial facilities, tightened efficiency standards for buildings and appliances, and forest coverage expanded to 20%. The Chinese, and some international observers, claim that China has been more proactive on climate change than some developed countries, though others are cautious of China’s ability to achieve its goals. Meanwhile, Chinese business opportunities in clean and low carbon energy are expanding rapidly.

Historical carbon emissions

From this database:

one obtains a total of 355 GtC of fossil fuel emissions from preindustrial times to the year 2005, and about 160 GtC of other emissions (for example, land use changes), for a grand total of 510 GtC.

Future carbon emissions

One can’t predict the future, but one can make projections based on assumptions. Nathan Urban’s paper with Klaus Keller, discussed in “week304” and “week305”, uses this source:

Based on Nordhaus’ work, Urban estimates that in a “business as usual” scenario, by the year 2300 we will have burnt 4800 gigatonnes worth of of carbon, compared to the roughly 510 gigatonnes we’ve burned far.

This projection assumes we get desperate for cheap energy and extract not only coal, oil and gas but also all the hard-to-get fossil resources in oil shales and tar sands, all the remaining coal, etc. It does not include the methane clathrates at the bottom of the sea.

Here’s a graph from Urban and Keller’s paper:

Urban and Keller - carbon emissions projection

In this scenario carbon emissions peak around 2150 at about 23 gigatonnes carbon per year (84 gigatonnes CO2). By 2300 they’ve tapered off to about 4 GtC (15 GtCO2).

The figure of 4800 gigatons in the year 2300 is not the end of the story, because in his book Nordhaus estimates that 6000±\pm1200 gigatonnes of carbon are available to be burnt (again, not counting methane clathrates).

It’s currently estimated that there are somewhere between 500 and 2500 gigatonnes of carbon in methane clathrates:

  • A.V. Milkov, Global estimates of hydrate-bound gas in marine sediments: how much is really out there?, Earth-Sci. Rev. 66 (2004). 183–197.

These recent figures are much less than earlier estimates.

category: carbon