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How Much Do Humans Pollute? A Breakdown of Industrial, Vehicular and Household C02 Emissions

James River mill, West Linn, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Each year, human beings release an increasing amount of carbon dioxide (C02) into the atmosphere; at present, around 40 billion tons per annum. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, 8.4 billion tons are attributed to the burning of fossil fuels; primarily coal, gas and oil. The European Commission and Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency lists the most polluting countries (including the EU as a whole and each of its member states). They are China, the US, the EU, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, Canada and Brazil. When measured in terms of per capita emissions, the US and Canada are the biggest culprits, with each Canadian and American emitting an average of >15 tonnes of CO2 per annum (“carbon footprint”). This is a result of commuting, consumption, domestic energy use, leisure and travel.

CO2 accounts for approximate 76 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The US Environmental Protection Agency says that combustion (of coal, gas and oil) is the main human activity that releases CO2. Electrical production, which uses coal combustion for its generation, accounts for 32.9% of US CO2 emissions. Transport accounts for 34.2%, which is where oil comes in, as most transport (cars, trucks, planes and ships) relies on petroleum. Industry is responsible for 15.4% of emissions and residential/commercial for 10%.

One barrel consists of 42 gallons (159 liters) of oil. Each day, 96 million barrels of oil and liquid fuels are consumed worldwide. This equates to 35 billion barrels a year. Vehicles are significant C02 emitters. The majority of vehicles run on oil. There are 800 million cars in the world. According to Automotive Industry Solutions, there are 253 million cars and trucks in use in the US. There are 234 million cars on the roads of Western Europe in a sector that employs 13 million people. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that half of all carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides and a quarter of aromatic hydrocarbons, released each year can be attributed to transport. The Union further notes that much of the pollution could be easily reduced by clean vehicle fuel technologies. It’s not just the use of vehicles which causes pollution. The Union also points out that from design, to manufacture, to disposal, vehicle-related pollution is significant.

China’s global CO2 emissions are twice those of US emissions. China equalled and surpassed US emissions more than ten years ago. China’s emissions are largely due to the use of coal and are disproportionately larger than US emissions because of the size of China’s population (there are 1.3 billion Chinese compared to 327 million Americans). Despite having a quarter of China’s population, American per capita CO2 emissions more than double China’s. Personal energy consumption is a major factor. The average Chinese person uses 3,500 kilowatts of energy per hour (kWh) compared with the average American, who uses over 12,000. Personal transportation is another factor. By 2011, in China, there were 68.9 motor vehicles per 1,000 people. In the US, were 786 per 1,000. Consider also the impact of food consumption on emissions. By 2008, the average daily calorie intake in China was 2,900. In the US, it was 3,750.8

Among the poorer countries, the biggest polluters (Brazil, China and India) have the lowest per capita emissions compared to the “developed” nations. By far the least polluting continent is Africa, with some of the most Westernized countries (Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa) emitting the most C02. It is also worth remembering that the poor countries serve as providers of resources, including oil and other raw materials for the West. Factories and assembly plants that use a lot of energy pollute because they produce goods for export to Europe and North America, making shipping and air travel big CO2 emitters. Liberia’s shipping exports, for instance, make it a significant polluter.

The more Westernized countries become, the more likely they are to pollute. In the 1980s, China adopted US-style privatization programs, agreeing to huge inflows of US capital. Within twenty years, China had equalled America’s record on annual CO2 emissions. By the year 2000, US corporations were investing $11.14 billion in China. By 2007, they were investing $29.71bn. This leapt to $53.93bn in 2008 and climbed to $65.77bn by 2014.

Much of the so-called investment is internal to US corporations, as companies looking for cheap labour outsource to China and other poor countries. For example, in 2010 the trade journal Manufacturing and Technology News reported that “[h]undreds of major American corporations are shipping thousands of jobs overseas,” where workers’ rights, pay and health and safety standards are lower. Some foreign countries offer huge tax breaks and foreign direct investment. Big companies and their subsidiaries and divisions offshoring to China, Mexico and other poor countries with low environmental standards, include: AT&T, Boeing, General Dynamics, Hewlett Packard, IBM, International Paper, Kingston Technology, Motorola, Nordex, Rockwell Automation, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Staples, Tenneco Automotive and Tyco Electronics.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimates that air pollution kills 200,000 Americans every year. MIT’s Laboratory of Aviation and the Environment tracked emissions at ground-level, from industrial smokestacks, vehicles, railways and residential heating. Road vehicle emissions alone kill 53,000 and power generators kill 52,000. California has the worst air quality, with 21,000 persons dying prematurely each year. On average, sulphur, carbon monoxide and other pollutants shorten the lifespans of those affected by a decade. Researchers found that congestion is one of the reasons for large numbers of vehicle-related deaths. Where traffic flows in less populated areas, fewer people are affected. Commercial and private pollution was highest in the Midwest, from the industrialized cities and stretching down to or across Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and LA.

According to the World Health Organization, 7 million people die each year as a result of exposure to air pollution. This equates to one in eight global deaths. Air pollution is the single biggest environmental health risk and more than doubles previous estimates. Indoor and outdoor pollution are linked to cancer, ischaemic (artery) heart disease and strokes. Poor and less developed countries have the worst air quality, with particularly toxic air in South and East Asia and the Western Pacific. 3.3 million deaths in those regions are attributed to indoor pollution (including work-related air quality) and 2.6 million to outdoor pollution.

Dr. Flavia Bustreo, WHO’s Assistant Director-General of Family, Women and Children’s Health, says: “Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cooking stoves.” Coal is a particularly bad pollutant, hence its contribution as the second largest cause of air pollution-related deaths in the US. Dr. Carlos Dora, WHO’s Coordinator for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, says: “Excessive air pollution is often a by-product of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry.”

The pollutants that drive anthropogenic climate change are not only bad for global temperatures and weather, they are bad for human and animal health, too. But hope is not lost. There are major and important changes occurring among grassroots activists, like the Extinction Rebellion, and the possibility of a Green New Deal at the political level. These movements need to endure and expand.

This article is a modified excerpt from my new book, Privatized Planet: “Free Trade” as a Weapon Against Democracy, Healthcare and the Environment (2019, New Internationalist).

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T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).

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