Energy is the lifeblood of all societies. But the production of energy from the burning of fossil fuels produces carbon emissions that are released into the atmosphere on a grand scale. The energy sector accounts for more than 70% of these emissions, which are driving climate change worldwide.
Reducing carbon emissions from the energy sector has a direct and positive impact on climate protection. So there needs to be a transition from the current energy system that relies heavily on fossil fuels to a system that uses renewable energy sources that do not emit carbon, such as wind and solar.
We also need to look at things like the electrification of transport and embrace a circular economy that seeks to reduce waste and the demand for energy. This process has already begun, but we need to speed it up – we’ve been dragging our heels for too long and now things are critical.
This will not happen by itself; it requires policy choices. These must be global, involving all states. It’s no good changing the energy sector of just one country. Energy has long been considered to fall within the domain of domestic policy. Yet international climate action is driving the transition to a low-carbon energy economy, on the basis of scientific evidence that highlights the importance of reducing energy consumption for the climate.
This must be done as quickly as possible. Some countries are more committed than others, but the extent of how much is actually being achieved (or not) must be monitored. This can only happen through the cooperation of all states under international law. Cooperative regulation of energy demands innovative, flexible organisation and law-making at international and the regional level.
Energy action = climate action
The United Nations (UN) is at the forefront of this international cooperation. In 2015, the General Assembly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that set out the progress the global community wants to make by 2030 on the most pressing challenges, from proverty reduction to climate change and energy transition.
SDG 7 relates to ensuring access to clean and affordable energy for all. It contains indicators of progress on renewables, access to electricity and energy efficiency. SDG 13 relates to urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. These two goals work in tandem to encourage all states – developed and developing – to collaborate to make energy sustainable (meaning low-carbon), while ensuring access for all in every country by 2030.
That means international climate action equals energy action. The UN High-Level Political Forum is the place states get together to discuss progress on the SGDs, and where consensus is being (re)affirmed continuously.
SGDs 7 and 13 have been established and reinforced through the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. This is a binding treaty under international law adopted through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, by which the UN first addressed climate change in 1992. The agreement is the key international legal framework through which states aim to keep the increase in the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere to well below 2℃, and ideally limiting it to 1.5℃ by the end of the century.
Signing up to cooperation
Almost all states have ratified the Paris Agreement and so must abide by it. If any intends to withdraw from it, they must abide by the legal rules of the agreement. So the US would only be able to withdraw – as Donald Trump insists – after the next presidential election. In the meantime, his administration continues to abide by the Paris Agreement rules and actually takes a very active role in the negotiations.
Domestic action is necessary to implement the promises of the Paris Agreement. Every state is obliged to submit “nationally determined contributions” that set the scene for the most ambitious climate protection plan at the national level.
These national plans on climate protection have a strong influence on energy regulation at the domestic level. The “Katowice package” (the Paris rule book), adopted in 2018, provides further guidance. For developed countries, the Paris Agreement stipulates that they adopt eceonomy-wide greenhouse gas emission targets. These targets can only be achieved if the entire economy, including the energy sector, is “decarbonised”. That means that the use of fossil fuels has to end and be replaced by sustainable (renewable) energy.
Developing countries receive support under the Paris Agreement so that they too can move over time to economy-wide reduction targets. Only by acting together will the international community achieve the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.
The 1994 Energy Charter Treaty, driven by the European Union and like-minded states, is emerging as the basis of transcontinental energy governance in Europe, Asia and Africa. This treaty covers energy investments, trade, freedom of energy transit, efficiency, and resolution of disputes. It is now modernising to support the energy transition.
Cooperative energy regulation also occurs on a regional level, and that is the case in Europe as well as Asia and Africa. The EU has adopted a frontrunner position with a strategy precisely based on the Paris Agreement till 2080, driving the transition of the continent’s energy system. Called the Clean Energy Package, it will create a transboundary, continent-wide energy system that better integrates renewables, improves efficiency and empowers consumer choice. Even after Brexit, the UK will likely remain connected to this market, as both the EU and the UK share the objective of achieving net zero carbon by 2050
If humanity is to achieve its goal of fully and speedily transitioning to low-carbon energy while ensuring affordable access for all, then we must stay focused and committed and continue to cooperate internationally. The future of the generations that follow depends on it.
On This Page:
Global Emissions by Gas
At the global scale, the key greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are:
Source: IPCC (2014)EXIT based on global emissions from 2010. Details about the sources included in these estimates can be found in the Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. EXIT
- Carbon dioxide (CO2): Fossil fuel use is the primary source of CO2. CO2 can also be emitted from direct human-induced impacts on forestry and other land use, such as through deforestation, land clearing for agriculture, and degradation of soils. Likewise, land can also remove CO2 from the atmosphere through reforestation, improvement of soils, and other activities.
- Methane (CH4): Agricultural activities, waste management, energy use, and biomass burning all contribute to CH4 emissions.
- Nitrous oxide (N2O): Agricultural activities, such as fertilizer use, are the primary source of N2O emissions. Fossil fuel combustion also generates N2O.
- Fluorinated gases (F-gases): Industrial processes, refrigeration, and the use of a variety of consumer products contribute to emissions of F-gases, which include hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).
Black carbon is a solid particle or aerosol, not a gas, but it also contributes to warming of the atmosphere. Learn more about black carbon and climate change on our Causes of Climate Change page.
Global Emissions by Economic Sector
Global greenhouse gas emissions can also be broken down by the economic activities that lead to their production.
Source: IPCC (2014); EXIT based on global emissions from 2010. Details about the sources included in these estimates can be found in the Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. EXIT
- Electricity and Heat Production (25% of 2010 global greenhouse gas emissions): The burning of coal, natural gas, and oil for electricity and heat is the largest single source of global greenhouse gas emissions.
- Industry (21% of 2010 global greenhouse gas emissions): Greenhouse gas emissions from industry primarily involve fossil fuels burned on site at facilities for energy. This sector also includes emissions from chemical, metallurgical, and mineral transformation processes not associated with energy consumption and emissions from waste management activities. (Note: Emissions from industrial electricity use are excluded and are instead covered in the Electricity and Heat Production sector.)
- Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use (24% of 2010 global greenhouse gas emissions): Greenhouse gas emissions from this sector come mostly from agriculture(cultivation of crops and livestock) and deforestation. This estimate does not include the CO2 that ecosystems remove from the atmosphere by sequestering carbon in biomass, dead organic matter, and soils, which offset approximately 20% of emissions from this sector.
- Transportation (14% of 2010 global greenhouse gas emissions): Greenhouse gas emissions from this sector primarily involve fossil fuels burned for road, rail, air, and marine transportation. Almost all (95%) of the world’s transportation energy comes from petroleum-based fuels, largely gasoline and diesel.
- Buildings (6% of 2010 global greenhouse gas emissions): Greenhouse gas emissions from this sector arise from onsite energy generation and burning fuels for heat in buildings or cooking in homes. (Note: Emissions from electricity use in buildings are excluded and are instead covered in the Electricity and Heat Production sector.)
- Other Energy (10% of 2010 global greenhouse gas emissions): This source of greenhouse gas emissions refers to all emissions from the Energy sector which are not directly associated with electricity or heat production, such as fuel extraction, refining, processing, and transportation.
Trends in Global Emissions
Source: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres, R.J. (2017). Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A. doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2017.Global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have significantly increased since 1900. Since 1970, CO2 emissions have increased by about 90%, with emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributing about 78% of the total greenhouse gas emissions increase from 1970 to 2011. Agriculture, deforestation, and other land-use changes have been the second-largest contributors. Emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases have also increased significantly since 1900. To learn more about past and projected global emissions of non-CO2 gases, please see the EPA report, Global Anthropogenic Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gas Emissions: 1990-2020.
Emissions by Country
Source: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres, R.J. (2017). National CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751-2014, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2017.In 2014, the top carbon dioxide (CO2) emitters were China, the United States, the European Union, India, the Russian Federation, and Japan. These data include CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion, as well as cement manufacturing and gas flaring. Together, these sources represent a large proportion of total global CO2 emissions.
Emissions and sinks related to changes in land use are not included in these estimates. However, changes in land use can be important: estimates indicate that net global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry, and other land use were over 8 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent, or about 24% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. In areas such as the United States and Europe, changes in land use associated with human activities have the net effect of absorbing CO2, partially offsetting the emissions from deforestation in other regions.
- Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (in the United States)
- Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gases: Emissions and Trends
- Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center
- European Commission Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research EXIT
- National Inventory Submissions EXIT
- World Development Indicators EXIT
- World Resources Institute’s Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT) EXIT
1. IPCC (2014). Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change . EXIT Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
2. FAO (2014). Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use Emissions by Sources and Removals by Sinks.(89 pp, 3.5 M, About PDF) EXIT Climate, Energy and Tenure Division, FAO.
3. IPCC (2014): Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.(80 pp, 4.2 M, About PDF) EXIT [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.