Greenhouse gases by sector in 2022: who is polluting the most?

Greenhouse gases vary sector to sector. These sectors may surprise you. Learn which sectors emit the most GHG emissions and ways they can cut back.

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Some sectors produce far more carbon emissions than others. Understanding which sectors are the most polluting helps us to prioritize actions to take to remove their harmful climate impacts. Here are the results from the latest greenhouse gases data per sector in the US. 

 

📊 Greenhouse gases data

GHG emissions don’t just include CO2, although this is the most prevalent type of emissions. In fact other greenhouse gas emissions are more potent. 

Quick reminder : what are greenhouse gases? 📖

Greenhouse gases warm the planet by trapping heat in the atmosphere, making the average global temperature rise. These emissions come from industrial sources such as burning fossil fuels, or land-based sources like deforestation. 

GHG emissions can also be absorbed by the planet’s natural sinks like the forests and the oceans. The problem is we are emitting more GHG emissions than the planet’s natural sinks can absorb. 

Each GHG causes atmospheric heating at a different rate. The heating effect of each gas is expressed relative to the most common type of greenhouse gas: carbon dioxide (CO2). Scientists record global GHGs in terms of the equivalent metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere.  

The other thing to know about GHGs is they stay in the atmosphere for different time periods. CO2 can stay in the atmosphere for centuries, while Methane has a shorter life as a greenhouse gas. 

Here are the most common types of greenhouse gases measured by the EPA:  

Carbon dioxide (CO2): CO2 comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. We use fossil fuels to supply the energy and fuel to ship goods, transport people, manufacture products, heat buildings, and construct roads, bridges, and skyscrapers. 

However, CO2 also comes from less noticeable sources when we clear forests to plant agricultural fields or build suburbs. In this case, the land releases the CO2 stored in the rich soil and dense plant matter (biomass) of forests.

Methane (CH4): Methane is a potent source of global warming that can heat up to 80 times faster than CO2. Methane is released in the atmosphere when we burn and produce natural gas, which is made of 70-90% methane.  

There are also other biological and land-based sources of methane such as the emissions from the livestock industry, food waste, and burning biomass. 

Nitrous oxide (N2O): Like CO2, N2O can collect in the atmosphere for very long periods of time. The most N2O is released during fertilizer use in agriculture. This is not only causing problems for the atmosphere, fertilizer run-off hurts coastal sea life because it causes toxic algae blooms. 

Some N2O is also emitted from fossil fuel combustion and it can be found in car exhaust. 

Fluorinated gases (F-gases): Even though they are used in very small amounts, these gases have an extremely potent atmospheric heating effect. They are thousands of times more potent than CO2. 

Originally, one of the F-gases, Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) was adopted to solve the problem of the ozone layer depletion. However, the side-effect of this was leaking an extremely potent GHG into the atmosphere. Now, there are regulations to replace HFCs in new products. 

Global trends 🌎

Around the world, the top five countries emitting GHGs are China (28%), the United States (18%), India (7%), Russia (5%), and Japan (3%). That’s over 60% of global emissions from just five countries. The remaining 15 countries emit 18%, and the rest of the world contributes just 21%.   

China is known for burning coal in its manufacturing processes. However, much of China’s products are made to be exported to other countries. Consumption of Chinese products in other countries contributes to this dependence on fossil fuels. China also depends on oil imports, which fuel its transportation. 

The United States, on the other hand, is a major emitter due to its transportation, industry, and energy sectors. As a major crude oil producer, the US exports oil around the world. 

India experienced fast industrialization, which increased its dependence on cheap coal to meet its energy needs. Seventy-five percent of India’s electricity came from burning coal in 2015. Coal is also the main energy source for India’s industrial sector. 

Historical emissions are also important to measure, because GHG emissions don’t disappear each year: most of them linger in the atmosphere for long periods of time. When you combine land and fossil fuel based emissions, the top historical emitters are the US, China, Russia, Brazil, and Indonesia.   

Land based emissions highlight the need to stop deforestation and both restore and conserve forests and ocean plant life. Brazil and Indonesia actually have rather low fossil fuel emissions, but deforestation in their rich, biodiverse rainforests has released enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. 

USA trends 🔍

The total emissions from the US in 2020 reached 5.2 million metric tons of CO2e. This estimate included land-based carbon sequestration. This amount represented a drop by 11 percent from 2019, most of this came from reduced fossil fuel burning.  

While this sounds impressive, keep in mind that emissions around the world started to quickly rebound after COVID-19 lockdowns ended. 

Trends show that the United States CO2 emissions likely peaked around 2006, and the subsequent drop in emissions mostly came from the electricity sector. These drops come from both switching to renewables and energy efficiency improvements. 

President Joe Biden has set a GHG emissions net reduction goal of 50-52% compared to 2005 by 2030. 

💣 Greenhouse gases ranking: which sector is the most polluting in 2022?

The steady rise of global GHG emissions over the past century has caused alarm in the international scientific community. The temperature rise associated with global warming drives everything from mass extinction to social inequalities around the world.  

Everyday, the ways we shop, travel, eat, and heat our homes have an enormous impact on the planet. The good news? Lowering our carbon emissions will not only improve our environment, it will bring us cleaner air and healthier lives. 

Here are the key industries that need to be revised to limit climate change. 

Transportation sector 🚌

About a third (29 percent) of greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, which makes up the single largest contributor to climate change. All of the cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes that use fossil fuel to move people and goods are responsible for this damage. 

Ninety percent of the engines used for transportation are “internal combustion engines” designed to burn gasoline or diesel–petroleum based fuels. 

If you’ve heard of the #flyless movement, you know that many people feel guilty about the CO2 emissions from their personal flights. Actually, air travel makes up just 10% of emissions from passenger transport in the USt. On average, most of our personal transportation missions come from driving a car (68%).   

In the US, the other GHG emitters included in transport are medium- to heavy-duty trucks (24%), ships (2%), rail (2%), and other (5%). 

What can you do? 

It might be time to cut back on your car-time. You can do this by biking, walking, or using public transport. 

The other option is to change the way you fuel your car. Purchase an electric vehicle (EV) or hybrid car. These cars can significantly cut down on vehicle emissions

Electricity sector ⚡

The next biggest sector for CO2 emissions in the US is electricity. A quarter (25%) of our emissions come from things like heating homes, running appliances, lighting buildings, and powering our computers and data storage facilities

While it varies state to state, about 62% of all electricity produced comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. 

Actually, the US has made a lot of progress to reduce its dependence on coal, which produces the most CO2 emissions compared to other fossil fuel electricity sources. In 1990, coal sourced 52% of the country’s electricity, while it dropped to 19% by 2020. 

In the same period of time renewable energy sources and nuclear have increased from about 30% to 40%, but natural gas use has grown the most from 12% to 40%. Petroleum-based electricity accounted for less than 1% overall in 2020. 

Companies have scaled their impact by developing entire solar farms to power their operations. Thanks to policy incentives offshore wind energy is also slated for major growth. 

Many large corporations are now announcing 24/7 renewable energy achievements, and joining RE100, which incentivizes fully transitioning business operations to renewables.  

The phase down of the electricity sector may sound impressive, but progress still isn’t happening fast enough. 

What can you do? 

Some important swaps can help cut down on electricity use as well: LEDs for standard lighting and energy efficient appliances for outdated models.  

If you can invest in renewable energy development, this is an excellent way to mitigate climate change. The IPCC estimates that three to six times more investment into clean energy is needed. 

Industry sector 🏭

Twenty-three percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the industrial sector. This includes processes to power up manufacturing facilities as well as from chemical reactions to produce goods, especially plastic. 

In the US, the runners up for the most intense CO2 emitting industrial processes are petroleum production, cement production, and iron and steel production. 

However, the number one industrial process is the replacement of ozone depleting CFCs with HFCs as refrigerants. This unique Catch-22 goes back to the problem with fluorinated gases. Even in small amounts, they have a significant warming potential.  

Manufacturing is considered one of the hardest areas to decarbonize, but new technologies like green hydrogen fuel show promise for reducing CO2 emissions. The industrial sector may be the last one to decarbonize, given its importance for supplying the equipment needed to shift other sectors. 

What can you do? 

The less we consume, the less we need to produce. One of the biggest ways to help the industrial sector emit less is by buying less overall. 

Companies that offer products-as-a-service models (X-aaS) can help limit the number of actual products we need to make for personal use.  

Another way to cut down on industrial production is to extend the lifespan of products by designing them to be repaired, reused, and recycled. Ending the practice of “planned obsolescence”--designing items to be replaced quickly–helps too. 

Commercial and Residential Sector 🏡

Businesses and homes contributed 13% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Most of these emissions come from heating sources that burn fossil fuels. Other factors include waste handling from food waste and other methane-emitting sources in landfills, and using products that contain greenhouse gases like HFCs (refrigerants). 

What can you do? 

Instead of heating your home or business with natural gas, a far more energy-efficient technology is a heat pump, which offers both cooling and heating from the same unit. 

You can also switch your natural gas stove tops with electrical induction burner units. 

Agriculture Sector 🌽

In the US, agricultural processes cause 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Most of this comes from cow-based methane and harvesting fields in ways that release CO2 from the soil. 

What can you do?  

Changing your diet to a vegan or low-meat diet can have a huge environmental benefit. 

Buying produce and food from local farmers who practice regenerative farming practices can also reduce your CO2 emissions. 

Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry Sector 🌲

This last sector shows that the US has safeguarded enough of its forests to contribute a net reduction to its overall GHG emissions: 12 percent. 

The protected state and federal lands and parks, along with privately managed forests offer a significant benefit to our climate. 

Recently President Biden launched a $1 Billion program to fund local conservation projects around the country. This could help expand the overall benefit of carbon sinks in the US. 

What can you do?

Support your local state and national parks by visiting them or donating to them. Landowners can also restore degraded land and reserve areas of land to grow naturally to improve the CO2 storing capabilities of the areas. 

Tree planting efforts are a popular way to contribute to land restoration, but it’s important to plant native tree species to avoid further disrupting the ecosystem. 

🍀 What about Greenly?

Greenly is your ally for reducing GHG emissions, no matter your industry. We work across numerous industrial sectors to identify and prioritize the actions to take to reduce emissions. Get started today

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