Author: Molly
Date: January 13, 2023

The world's biggest sources of emissions

We’re in a race against time to beat climate change. The science is clear: to ensure our planet is livable for future generations, global emissions need to peak by 2025 and drop by 45% by 2030.

By emissions, scientists mean greenhouse gases - mostly carbon dioxide - that become trapped in the earth’s atmosphere and heat up the planet. This global warming is having extreme effects on the earth’s weather systems, including frequent fires, droughts, and floods.  

But what causes these emissions? And how can we reduce them in time to combat climate change and save our world from destruction?

Let’s take a look at the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

Powering the globe

Modern life is dependent on energy. We use it for everything: from cooking, to heating or cooling our homes, to our computers and phones. The supply of energy to people’s homes makes up around 11% of global emissions

That’s before we get to the fact that many people, mostly in Africa and Asia, still don’t have access to electricity - about 770 million in total. As electricity access improves and populations become wealthier, the global demand for energy will continue to grow. To avoid further climate change, we need to power up low-income countries with reliable clean energy.

Rather than burning harmful fossil fuels, we can harness the powers of the natural world, such as sunlight and wind, to make clean energy that won’t run out. The future looks bright, as the price of renewables is falling by the minute, so it’ll make both economic and environmental sense for countries to make the switch. In 2050, 90% of the world’s electricity could come from renewable sources.

Feeding the world

Before it reaches our plates, our food has been on a long journey. It’s been grown, stored, processed, packaged, transported, and cooked - and often these stages occur in different countries. And every stage of this journey causes greenhouse gases to be emitted. 

A large part of the emissions from food happen on the farm. Livestock such as cows produce methane, which is over 28 times more warming than carbon dioxide. And fertilising soils, which is crucial to ensure we grow enough crops to feed the world’s population, accelerates emissions of nitrous oxide - a lesser-known greenhouse gas.

Agriculture also means that forests - such as the Amazon rainforest - are converted into farmland, meaning we lose the carbon-storing superpowers of trees. Closer to home, forest coverage in Europe has halved over the last 6,000 years, in part because of the demand for agricultural land. 

There’s no quick fix for solving the emissions from agriculture. Building a sustainable food system while feeding the world’s growing population will be one of the biggest challenges in fighting the climate crisis. 

And some solutions are arising, like innovative and less carbon-intensive farming techniques. Our personal consumption matters too - armed with the knowledge that meat and dairy account for 14.5% of the world’s carbon emissions, many people are changing their diets to limit their impact on the planet. 

Transport takes a toll

We all know how frustrating it is to be stuck in a queue of traffic, and the planet shares your pain. Most cars are gas guzzlers, polluting the air and emitting carbon dioxide as they clog up the roads. 

In recent years, electric cars have gone mainstream, and they’ll undoubtedly be part of the solution to the transport emissions problem - as long as they run on renewable energy, that is. But to effectively slash emissions from transport - which accounts for a fifth of all emissions - we’ll need to rethink how we travel altogether. 

Public transport is far less damaging to the environment than driving, but poor infrastructure means that many people don’t have the option. Better public transport - as well as safe routes for cyclists - will help us drive down our emissions, and have the added benefits of reducing air pollution and building healthier communities. 

And, as the pandemic showed us, much of the daily travel we took for granted was never really necessary in the first place. Many workers swapped their commute into city offices for a much shorter trip to the kitchen table - saving millions of tonnes of carbon emissions in the process.

Carbon is in fashion 

The rise of fast fashion - where clothes are made and sold as quickly and cheaply as possible - is an environmental disaster. The fashion industry is responsible for over 10% of annual carbon dioxide emissions, and to slow climate change, we need to change both how our clothes are made, and how we shop.

We are buying more clothes than ever before, and because emissions stem from their materials, production, washing, and transport, the planet pays the price for our oversized wardrobes. Many of these clothes end up in landfill after only a few wears, taking hundreds of years to fully decompose, or are incinerated, releasing more greenhouse gases. 

Currently, polyester is the most common fabric in clothes, and is made from oil, using about 70 million barrels a year. But fashion’s carbon footprint is becoming too big to ignore, so designers are increasingly looking to change how clothes are made. Recycled or natural materials, such as wood pulp, are much kinder to the planet. 

Clothing brand Patagonia is a leading example of how companies can be more sustainable - it is working towards using 100% recycled or renewable materials, has an official outlet for selling second-hand Patagonia clothing, and will recycle customers' goods that are beyond wear.

However, part of the answer also lies with us as individuals. We should stop seeing clothes as disposable and following trends that are over almost as soon as they start, and start seeing the clothes we buy as investments to last a lifetime.

What goes to waste

Only 9% of all the plastic waste that’s ever been made has been recycled. The rest has been incinerated, thrown away to sit in landfills, or swept into our oceans, harming marine life and disrupting delicate ecosystems. 

Food waste is also an issue - 2.5 billion tonnes of food ends up wasted before it is eaten, and gives off the powerfully damaging methane as it rots in landfill. 

Of course, recycling is one important solution to the waste problem - but what’s even better is to cut down on how much we produce in the first place, only making what we need.

Cutting carbon emissions can save the world

All of these sectors have big carbon footprints, and there are many obstacles in the way of the green and sustainable future we desperately need. The task in front of us might seem overwhelming.

But when we take action together, we have the power to change the world. By making even small changes to our lives, all of us will make a big difference.

Taking these important steps doesn’t have to be difficult, and you don’t have to go it alone. Our app gives you concrete, personally tailored suggestions for how you can tackle your emissions. Download it today for a host of tips and tricks, from swapping your energy provider to choosing sustainable Christmas and birthday gifts. 

Together, we can win the fight against climate change and protect our planet.

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