Greenhouse gases from human activities are the most significant driver of observed climate change since the mid-20th century.1
The indicators in this chapter characterize emissions of the major greenhouse gases resulting from human activities, the concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere, and how emissions and concentrations have changed over time. When comparing emissions of different gases, these indicators use a concept called “global warming potential” to convert amounts of other gases into carbon dioxide equivalents.
Why does it matter?
As greenhouse gas emissions from human activities increase, they build up in the atmosphere and warm the climate, leading to many other changes around the world—in the atmosphere, on land, and in the oceans. The indicators in other chapters of this report illustrate many of these changes. These changes have both positive and negative effects on people, society, and the environment—including plants and animals. Because many of the major greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for tens to hundreds of years after being released, their warming effects on the climate persist over a long time and can therefore affect both present and future generations.
Summary of Key Points
- U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions. In the United States, greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities increased by 7 percent from 1990 to 2014. Since 2005, however, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by 7 percent. Carbon dioxide accounts for most of the nation’s emissions and most of the increase since 1990. Electricity generation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, followed by transportation. Emissions per person have decreased slightly in the last few years.
- Sources of Data on U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions. EPA has two key programs that provide data on greenhouse gas emissions in the United States: the Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks and the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. The programs are complementary, providing both a higher-level perspective on the nation’s total emissions and detailed information about the sources and types of emissions from individual facilities.
- Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Worldwide, net emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities increased by 35 percent from 1990 to 2010. Emissions of carbon dioxide, which account for about three-fourths of total emissions, increased by 42 percent over this period. As with the United States, the majority of the world’s emissions result from electricity generation, transportation, and other forms of energy production and use.
- Atmospheric Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases. Concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased since the beginning of the industrial era. Almost all of this increase is attributable to human activities.2 Historical measurements show that the current global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are unprecedented compared with the past 800,000 years, even after accounting for natural fluctuations.
- Climate Forcing. Climate forcing refers to a change in the Earth’s energy balance, leading to either a warming or cooling effect over time. An increase in the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases produces a positive climate forcing, or warming effect. From 1990 to 2015, the total warming effect from greenhouse gases added by humans to the Earth’s atmosphere increased by 37 percent. The warming effect associated with carbon dioxide alone increased by 30 percent.