What Are the Sources of CO2 and Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Green House Gas Emissions

Written by TerraPass


As the most significant challenge of our time, climate change has united the globe in de-carbonizing our societies – and striving for a cleaner, greener world.

And while there’s still a very long road ahead of us, America has made some incredible progress in reducing CO2 emissions – and adopting sustainable forms of energy, transportation, and industry.

But if you’re someone who wants to help fight global warming, it’s essential to know the answer to one simple question: what are the sources of carbon emissions?

When we see news coverage about climate change, we’re often shown familiar images of coal power stations or freeways clogged with gasoline-powered cars. And while these are some of the most significant causes of global warming – they don’t tell us the whole story.

In fact, power plants and cars are only responsible for around half of America’s greenhouse gasses – meaning a large percentage of our emissions come from a variety of other areas. Based on the latest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) figures from 2018, here are America’s approximate greenhouse gas emissions by source:

  • Transportation (28%)
  • Electricity Production (27%)
  • Industry (22%)
  • Commercial and Residential (12%)
  • Agriculture (10%)

And so today, we’re taking a deep-dive into the sources of America’s carbon emissions to help you understand exactly where our greenhouse gasses are coming from – and how you can help to restore the balance.

Transportation (28% of US Emissions)

The transportation sector is the single largest producer of greenhouse gasses in America, having overtaken energy production in just the last few years. At the end of 2018, there were almost 274 million vehicles on American roads, including passenger cars, motorbikes, trucks, vans, and buses.

And while newer gas and diesel vehicles are far more fuel-efficient than older models – there are simply many more vehicles on the roads now than there used to be. According to the EPA, the average American passenger car emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, while the total emissions from medium and heavy trucks have almost doubled since 1990.

It’s clear that if we’re serious about reversing global warming, we need to completely re-think our transportation system and embrace sustainable, low-carbon modes of transport. Thankfully, the days of gasoline-powered cars appear to be numbered – and cleaner, safer, and more advanced vehicles are already beginning to take their place.

In what some are already dubbing “the decade of the electric vehicle”, battery-powered cars, motorbikes, vans, and even large trucks are quickly evolving from something out of science fiction into a mainstream alternative. And while charging electric vehicles from the grid still contributes to carbon emissions, their “CO2 per mile” is often substantially lower than gasoline models – and will continue to drop as more renewable energy enters the mix.

And thankfully, if you purchase an electric car, there are a few different ways you can power it with zero-emission energy. You can install a solar and battery system on your property, buy green electricity from your power company, or purchase renewable energy credits to offset your energy consumption.

Electricity production (27% of US Emissions)

Electricity generation is often the first thing people think of when talking about carbon emissions, conjuring up images of large power stations burning coal or natural gas and pumping large plumes of smoke and other pollutants into the air. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), there are almost 10,000 active power plants in America – and we have the 2nd highest coal generation capacity in the world behind China.

But while America once sourced the overwhelming majority of its electricity from fossil fuels, the rapid uptake of low-cost solar and wind is quickly transforming the energy mix. In fact, 2019 was the first time in almost 140 years in which we used more renewable energy than coal – a trend that only looks set to continue into the future.

And so, while renewables are on track to one day become our primary source of electricity – we still need to be aware of the thousands of fossil fuel plants that still dominate the grid.

At terrapass, we believe that renewable energy is one of the foundations of a clean world, and we want to help make the transition happen as quickly as possible. We work with clean energy generators such as large-scale wind farms to offer renewable energy credits – also known as RECs – to give every home and business the ability to support zero-emission energy.

If you want to use clean energy, but you can’t install your own solar system or wind turbine, you can purchase RECs to offset your electricity use – and support the expansion of renewable energy systems throughout the country.

Industry (22% of US Emissions)

The industrial sector is responsible for the goods, consumer products, and raw materials we use every day. It is also one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which are split into two categories:

  • Direct emissions produced at the facility, such as burning fossil-fuels for electricity and heat, the emissions from manufacturing and chemical reactions, and leaks from equipment and industrial processes that contribute to global warming.
  • Indirect emissions produced off-site, but still contribute to the facility’s carbon footprint. A common example is a coal power station producing electricity, which is then used by a factory to power its machinery.

Industry’s share of total greenhouse gasses (22%) is based on direct emissions only, and when combining these with indirect emissions, the industrial sector is actually the largest polluter in the US.

And while many factories and industrial facilities remain hidden from public view, we should remember that everything they produce – from raw steel to our daily consumer products – has an associated carbon footprint.

Thankfully, the industrial sector is taking large strides towards a cleaner future. According to the EPA, the total greenhouse gasses from industry (both direct and indirect) have declined by 16.1 percent since 1990 – driven by the uptake of renewables, innovation in manufacturing, and tighter energy-efficiency standards.

Many industrial facilities are also working to reduce their environmental footprint with measures such as investing in carbon offsets to reduce greenhouse gasses, or buying certified RECs to offset their energy consumption.

Ultimately, we as consumers also have the power to vote with our wallets. By making a conscious decision to support sustainable and green manufacturers, we reward those that are doing the right thing – and encourage others the follow in their footsteps.

Commercial and Residential (12% of US Emissions)

Most of our homes and businesses still rely on carbon-intensive electricity, but there are a number of other ways that commercial and residential properties are sources of CO2 emissions.

Many of us use natural gas and petroleum-based fuels for heating and cooking, which emit gasses such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. The organic waste we send to landfill is also a significant source of methane, which is released into the air as it decomposes. Homes and businesses also produce high volumes of wastewater, which is sent to treatment plants that create indirect emissions of their own.

As we continue to seek measures to reduce the effects of carbon emissions from residential and commercial properties, there’s a growing school of thought that all-electric buildings are the path towards a cleaner future. While we often rely on natural gas to provide our heating and cooking, it’s still a fossil-fuel that produces unavoidable carbon emissions. On the other hand, America’s electricity grid has become significantly cleaner over the last 20 years – driven by the growing demand for renewable energy and the closure of aging coal power stations. Many home and business owners are also installing their own solar systems, batteries, and even wind turbines – generating clean and sustainable energy directly at the source.

At terrapass, we firmly believe in creating a greener future for everyone, and so we offer a range of solutions that can help you to reduce or even completely eliminate your greenhouse gas emissions.

Using our free carbon emissions calculator, you can measure the carbon footprint of your home or business, including electricity use, travel, public transport, shipping, and many other categories. Once you have a better understanding of your environmental impact, you can invest in carbon offsets from our range of emission reduction projects, or purchase RECs to counteract your electricity use and restore the balance.

With such a growing focus on renewable energy, sustainability, and energy-efficiency, it’s exciting to see so many commercial and residential properties transforming for the better. And in addition to reducing CO2 emissions, green buildings are also cheaper to run and maintain, giving home and business owners greater financial stability – and strengthening our communities in the long-run.

Agriculture (10% of US Emissions)

While most of our carbon emissions come from burning fossil fuels to create electricity, provide heat, or power vehicles, agriculture is also a significant source of greenhouse gasses. The sector is responsible for growing crops and managing livestock for food production, and creating biofuels such as ethanol from corn or sugarcane.

In the US, agriculture contributes to carbon emissions in several different ways, including:

  • Livestock such as cattle, which produce methane as part of their natural digestive process. There are currently almost 100 million cows in America, most of which are raised purely for beef and dairy production.
  • Livestock manure, which emits gasses such as methane and nitrous oxide as it decomposes.
  • Soil management, which can lead to increased levels of nitrous oxide that enters the atmosphere. Soil emission levels are influenced by the use of fertilizers, the types of crops planted, the draining of organic soils, and irrigation techniques.
  • Crop and livestock management, such as the use of lime and urea, rice cultivation, and the controlled burning of farming and crop areas.

At terrapass, one of our primary forms of greenhouse gas abatement involves working with farmers to reduce methane emissions from livestock. Rather than letting methane enter the atmosphere, we assist farms in feeding their manure into anaerobic digesters and then using the captured methane to create clean electricity.

America’s agricultural sector is the backbone of our country, providing much of the food we eat, and even some of the fuel we use. When we support local farms and invest in newer and cleaner technologies, it reduces the carbon footprint of our entire food and livestock system – which ultimately benefits all of us.

Carbon Emissions: Change Is in Your Hands

From this detailed list of our carbon emissions by source, it’s clear that our planet’s health is directly influenced by our individual decisions and behaviors. And while greenhouse gasses come from many different places, there are also more ways than ever before for us to make a difference – and restore the natural balance.

At terrapass, we believe the path to reducing carbon emissions starts with our consumption – whether in the form of electricity, fuel, or food – which we can improve by making smarter choices or seeking sustainable alternatives. And for our unavoidable emissions, we offer a selection of certified carbon offsets and renewable energy credits that can help everyone – whether you’re an individual or a business – to significantly reduce the size of your carbon footprint.

And while there’s still a lot of important work ahead of us, we believe that as more and more people embrace sustainable lifestyles, the future looks brighter – and greener – than ever before.

Photo by Marcin Jozwiak from Pexels

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