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Greenhouse gasses by sector: who is polluting the most?
Blog...Greenhouse gasses by sector: who is polluting the most?

Greenhouse gasses by sector: who is polluting the most?

Ecology News
Global Warming
large power plant releasing emissions into the air
In this article we’ll look at the detailed breakdown of greenhouse gas data per sector, and explore the individual actions that you can take to help reduce emissions.
Ecology News
large power plant releasing emissions into the air

Certain sectors contribute to carbon emissions more significantly than others. Identifying and understanding these high-emission sectors is crucial for prioritizing targeted actions to mitigate their detrimental climate impacts. 

Analyzing the latest greenhouse gas data per sector not only sheds light on the primary sources of pollution but also guides policy-making, business strategies, and public awareness initiatives. This information helps to focus efforts on areas where interventions can make the most substantial difference, aligning with broader goals of environmental responsibility and sustainable development. 

👉 In this article we’ll take a closer look at the detailed breakdown of greenhouse gasses data per sector. We’ll explore the individual actions that you can take to help reduce emissions across these sectors.

Greenhouse gasses

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions encompass more than just carbon dioxide (CO2), even though CO2 is the most prevalent and widely recognized type. In fact, other greenhouse gases such as methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are even more potent in terms of their impact on global warming. These gasses, although often found in smaller quantities, can have a more substantial warming effect on the Earth's atmosphere, sometimes many times greater than CO2. 

Understanding the full spectrum of GHG emissions is essential for comprehensive climate analysis, effective policy-making, and the implementation of targeted strategies to reduce the harmful impacts of all greenhouse gasses on the environment.

Quick reminder: what are greenhouse gasses? 

Greenhouse gasses (GHGs) play a crucial role in warming the planet by trapping heat in the atmosphere, contributing to a rise in the average global temperature. This warming effect comes from various sources, including industrial activities such as burning fossil fuels and land-based actions like deforestation.

However, it's essential to recognize that not all GHGs are created equal. Each gas contributes to atmospheric heating at a distinct rate, and the heating effect is often expressed relative to carbon dioxide (CO2), the most common type of GHG. Scientists quantify global GHGs in terms of equivalent metric tons of CO2, enabling comparisons across different gasses.

Furthermore, the planet's natural sinks, such as forests and oceans, can absorb GHG emissions. The challenge we currently face is that human activities are emitting more GHGs than these natural sinks can absorb, exacerbating the problem of global warming.

👉 To learn more about carbon sinks and the important role that they play why not read our article on the topic. 

Another critical aspect of understanding GHGs is their varying lifespans in the atmosphere. While CO2 can linger for centuries, contributing to long-term climate change, other gasses like methane (CH4) have a shorter atmospheric life but are more potent in their warming effect. This complexity in the nature and impact of different GHGs underscores the importance of a nuanced approach to climate mitigation strategies, recognizing that tackling this challenge requires understanding and addressing the unique properties and sources of various greenhouse gasses.

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The most common types of greenhouse gases that are measured by the Environmental Protection Agency in the US (EPA) are:

Carbon dioxide (CO2) 

Primarily produced from the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, CO2 plays a significant role in supplying energy to our modern infrastructure. This includes fueling transportation, manufacturing processes, heating buildings, and construction activities like building roads, bridges, and skyscrapers. 

However, CO2 emissions also originate from less conspicuous sources. For instance, clearing forests for agriculture or suburban development releases CO2 stored in the soil and dense plant matter (biomass) of forests, exacerbating the overall emissions.

Methane (CH4) 

Methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, can heat the atmosphere up to 80 times faster than CO2. Methane emissions result primarily from the production and combustion of natural gas, which typically consists of 70-90% methane. Additionally, biological and land-based sources such as livestock farming, food waste, and biomass burning contribute significantly to methane emissions, highlighting the need for comprehensive mitigation strategies.

Nitrous oxide (N2O)

Similar to CO2, N2O can persist in the atmosphere for extended periods, accumulating over time to contribute to global warming. Agriculture, particularly the use of synthetic fertilizers, is a major source of N2O emissions. These fertilizers not only release N2O into the atmosphere, but their runoff can also lead to harmful algal blooms that harm coastal marine life. Other sources of N2O emissions include fossil fuel combustion and vehicle exhaust, emphasizing the need for cleaner energy and transport solutions.

👉 To read more about the harmful effects of nitrous oxide on marine life and the risk of algae blooms, why not check out our article

Fluorinated gasses (F-gases)

Despite their relatively small quantity, F-gasses are incredibly potent, with some variants exerting a warming effect thousands of times greater than CO2. One class of F-gasses, 

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), were initially introduced as a solution to ozone layer depletion caused by Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). However, this remedy introduced a new challenge, as HFCs are powerful greenhouse gasses. Recognizing this unintended consequence, regulations have been introduced to replace HFCs in new products, reflecting the complex nature of environmental challenges and the need for thorough solutions that consider potential side effects.

👉 To learn more about hydrofluorocarbons head over to our article on the subject. 

large factory releasing air pollution

Global trends

Top emitters

Globally, the five countries contributing the most to greenhouse gas emissions are China (33%), the United States (13%), India (7%), Russia (5%), and Japan (3%). Collectively, these nations account for over 60% of worldwide emissions. 

❗️ In 2021, nearly half of the global energy-related CO2 emissions were attributed to the top 10% of emitters, while the bottom 10% were responsible for only 0.2% of global emissions.

China, the world's largest emitter, heavily relies on coal in its manufacturing processes. A significant portion of China's products are destined for export, meaning that global consumption of Chinese goods indirectly fuels the country's dependence on fossil fuels. Additionally, China's growing transportation sector relies on imported oil, further contributing to its emissions profile.

In contrast, in the United States emissions largely stem from its transportation, industry, and energy sectors. As a significant producer of crude oil, the U.S. not only consumes but also exports oil globally, playing a major role in the international energy landscape.

India's GHG emissions profile reflects its rapid industrialization and reliance on coal as an accessible and inexpensive energy source. In 2020, coal accounted for 75% of India's electricity generation and remains the primary energy source for the industrial sector. This reliance on coal emphasizes the challenges that emerging economies may face in balancing development goals with environmental responsibilities.

Collectively, these patterns reveal a complex interplay between industrial activity, energy production, and consumption habits across different countries. It highlights the importance of a cooperative international approach to mitigating emissions, recognising the shared but differentiated responsibilities that nations have in addressing this global challenge.

Historical emissions

Historical emissions hold significant relevance in the assessment of global warming, as most greenhouse gasses (GHGs) persist in the atmosphere for extended periods. Unlike temporary pollutants, these emissions accumulate over time, magnifying their impact. When evaluating both land and fossil fuel-based emissions, the top historical contributors are the US, China, Russia, Brazil, and Indonesia.

Land-based emissions

The examination of land-based emissions in particular underscores the urgency of halting deforestation and implementing strategies to restore and conserve both forested and oceanic ecosystems. For countries like Brazil and Indonesia, the situation is nuanced. Though they have relatively low fossil fuel emissions, extensive deforestation within their rich, biodiverse rainforests has led to the massive release of CO2 into the atmosphere.

This pattern emphasizes that climate change isn't solely a product of industrial activity and energy consumption. It also results from changes to the natural environment, such as deforestation and degradation of other vital carbon sinks. Consequently, a holistic approach to emission reduction must recognize and address these different sources of emissions, including responsible land management and the preservation of natural habitats. Such an approach not only mitigates climate change but also protects biodiversity and the natural world.

forest burning to clear land

Global emissions

Global energy-related CO2 emissions rose by 1% in 2022, reaching a new high of 36.8 billion tonnes, according to a recent IEA report. This increase, amounting to 321 million tonnes, was far less than anticipated and considerably slower than the 3.2% global economic growth. 

Contributing factors to the emissions increase included extreme weather events and offline nuclear power plants. However, the deployment of clean energy technologies such as solar, wind, EVs, and heat pumps helped avoid an additional 550 million tonnes of emissions, limiting the impacts of increased coal and oil consumption during the global energy crisis.

Although this reflects a positive movement, the continued growth trajectory of emissions calls for urgent, stronger actions to accelerate the clean energy transition and align with global energy and climate goals.

👉 To learn more about the Paris Agreement and the commitments made by countries around the world, check out our article.

image of the world lit up at night, taken from outer space

Greenhouse gasses ranking - which sectors are the most polluting?

The unrelenting rise of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions throughout the past century has become a major concern within the international scientific community, prompting urgent calls for immediate action. The consequences of global warming, driven by this relentless increase in emissions, extend far beyond just a rise in temperature. The situation is triggering cascading effects ranging from the mass extinction of species and disruptions to ecosystems to exacerbating social inequalities and economic disparities across the globe.

Our daily choices, whether it's the mode of transportation we choose, the food we consume, the way we shop, or how we heat our homes, collectively contribute to this mounting crisis. These seemingly mundane decisions have an enormous cumulative impact on the planet's health.

The good news? Each of us has the power to make a difference. By embracing more sustainable practices and lowering our carbon emissions, we can effect positive change. This not only promises to mitigate environmental degradation but will also foster cleaner air and healthier lives for current and future generations.

To effectively combat climate change, a comprehensive overhaul of key industries is essential. Here are some critical sectors that require urgent attention and revision to limit their environmental impact:

infographic carbon emissions by industryinfographic carbon emissions by industry

Transportation sector

Roughly one-fifth (20.2%) of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to the transportation sector, encompassing the vast network of cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes that rely on fossil fuels.

Between 1990 and 2022, transport emissions have expanded at an annual rate of 1.7%, a growth rivaled only by the industrial sector. But this trajectory was briefly altered during the COVID-19 pandemic when lockdowns and travel restrictions resulted in significant reductions in emissions. Aviation emissions plummeted by 75%, while surface transport decreased by 50%.

With the easing of lockdowns in 2020, the transportation sector rebounded. In 2022 alone, transport-related CO2 emissions surged by 3% compared to the previous year, signaling a return to the growth of emissions within the sector.

The major culprits within transportation emissions are passenger cars, which account for 39%, followed by medium and heavy trucks at 23%. Despite perceptions, aviation is responsible for a more modest 9% of the sector's greenhouse gas emissions.

The persistent challenge is that nearly 80% of cars and vans on the road are powered by internal combustion engines. The International Energy Agency asserts that to align with the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, there must be a decisive shift: all car and van sales need to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035. This highlights the pressing need for innovative policies, infrastructure development, and consumer incentives to drive a more sustainable transportation future.

What can you do?

Considering the significant impact of transportation on the environment, it might be wise to evaluate your personal vehicle usage. There are several ways to contribute to a greener future:

  • Embrace Alternative Modes of Transport: Biking, walking, or utilizing public transportation are not only healthy alternatives but can substantially reduce your carbon footprint.
  • Invest in Sustainable Vehicle Options: If driving is essential for you, consider purchasing an electric vehicle (EV) or a hybrid car. These innovative options can significantly cut down on vehicle emissions, aligning with a more environmentally responsible lifestyle.
  • Explore Car-Sharing and Ride-Sharing: Services that allow you to share rides with others or rent a car only when needed can be both cost-effective and environmentally friendly.
  • Adopt Efficient Driving Practices: Even without changing your vehicle, you can reduce emissions by driving efficiently. This includes maintaining a steady speed, keeping your vehicle well-maintained, and planning trips efficiently to minimize unnecessary driving.

By consciously choosing to adjust your travel habits, you can play a part in reducing emissions across the transport sector.

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Electricity sector 

The global electricity sector stands at the forefront of decarbonization, even as electricity demand continues to rise. In 2022, the world’s electricity reached its cleanest level ever, with the carbon intensity dropping to a record low of 436 gCO2/kWh. This was fueled by a record growth in wind and solar, which constituted 12% of the global mix, up from 10% the previous year. Together with other clean sources like nuclear, they made up 39% of the global supply, a new high.

Despite this progress, there were challenges. Clean electricity sources like nuclear and hydro witnessed a decline for the first time since 2011. Power sector emissions also increased by 1.3%, marking an all-time high, as coal generation went up by 1.1% and the number of coal plant closures reached a seven-year low.

2022 stands as a pivotal year in the transition to clean power, especially in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. This event led many governments to reevaluate their energy strategies due to rising fossil fuel prices and security concerns. It also spurred a push towards electrification, with increased adoption of heat pumps, electric vehicles, and electrolysers, promising future reductions in emissions. While electricity is becoming cleaner, the pressure is mounting to build more clean power capacity quickly, reflecting the complexities of this global transition.

What can you do?

Switching to energy-efficient options can make a big difference in your electricity consumption. By simply replacing standard bulbs with LEDs and upgrading to energy-efficient appliances, you can cut down on both costs and emissions.

Investing in renewable energy development is another powerful way to combat climate change. The IPCC highlights that a significant increase in investment in clean energy is required to meet global goals. Whether it's through personal investment in renewable projects or choosing a green energy plan from your provider, these changes can have a lasting impact on our planet's health.

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Industrial sector

In 2022, the industrial sector, which largely relies on fossil fuels - particularly coal - contributed a quarter of global energy-related CO2 emissions, totaling 9.0 Gt. Despite a modest decline due to decreased activity in China’s industrial sector and the global energy crisis, this figure still fails to align with the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE) Scenario, which requires that emissions drop to about 7 Gt CO2 by 2030.

The industry's emissions have soared by 70% since 2000 due to a surge in global demand for goods. This trend highlights the critical need for understanding how to sustainably produce, use, and dispose of essential commodities.

Decarbonizing the industrial sector is challenging as low-carbon technologies are either under development or expensive, and industrial assets are long-lasting and rarely replaced.  To align with the net-zero emissions scenario, we need aggressive government policies that mandate CO2 emissions reductions and facilitate new technologies.

Progress will require a mix of enhanced material and energy efficiency, wider adoption of low-carbon fuels, and accelerated development of near-zero-emission production processes. This includes carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), and hydrogen technologies.

Government policy has a pivotal role in driving this progress by reducing risks associated with new technologies and enforcing mandatory CO2 emission reduction policies.

What can you do?

Reducing consumption inherently diminishes the need for production. A significant way to lessen emissions within the industrial sector is through more conscious consumer choices, particularly by purchasing fewer goods overall.

Companies embracing the products-as-a-service models (X-aaS) are paving the way for sustainability. By providing services rather than physical goods, they can substantially decrease the necessity for manufacturing items for individual use.

Moreover, strategies aimed at extending the lifespan of products offer another pathway to curbing industrial production. By designing products to be more easily repaired, reused, and recycled, we can cultivate a more sustainable future. Putting an end to the practice of "planned obsolescence"—the deliberate design of items for rapid replacement—further contributes to this goal. Such thoughtful approaches not only minimize waste but also promote a culture of longevity and responsible stewardship.


Building sector

The buildings sector is responsible for over a third of global energy consumption and emissions. This encompasses the energy used in the construction, heating, cooling, and lighting of residential and commercial spaces, as well as the appliances and equipment contained within. In 2022, operations of buildings accounted for 30% of global final energy consumption and 26% of global energy-related emissions (8% direct and 18% indirect). Notably, direct emissions decreased in 2022 compared to the previous year, even as energy use in the buildings sector rose by around 1%.

Global floor area is expanding swiftly, especially in developing countries. Increased affluence is leading to a surge in purchases of appliances like air conditioners. Given the long lifespan of structures, heating and cooling systems, and various appliances, decisions made today in design and procurement will shape energy use for many years to come. This is particularly crucial as extreme temperatures are driving up heating-related emissions in certain regions.

While current technologies offer promise for significant energy and cost reductions, the urgency for more robust policy support remains. Measures such as minimum performance standards and building energy codes are instrumental in steering the building sector towards the ambitious goal of the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario.

The good news is that many countries are recognizing and responding to the urgency of the situation by widening the scope and enhancing the stringency of performance standards and building energy codes. Simultaneously, the adoption of efficient and renewable building technologies is picking up pace. Yet, the road to the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE) Scenario demands quicker, more substantial changes. This critical decade sets the stage for realizing ambitious targets, such as ensuring all new buildings and 20% of existing structures are zero-carbon-ready by 2030.

What can you do?

Instead of relying on natural gas to heat your home or business, consider utilizing a heat pump—a more energy-efficient alternative that can drastically reduce energy consumption. Heat pumps offer the dual functionality of both cooling and heating from a single unit, making them a versatile and economical option for temperature control.

Switching from natural gas stove tops to electrical induction burner units is another smart energy-saving decision you can make in your home or business. Induction burners are known for their rapid heating and precise temperature control. They use electromagnetic fields to generate heat directly in the cookware, reducing energy loss and resulting in faster, more efficient cooking.

By investing in these modern alternatives, you can not only contribute to a more sustainable environment but also enjoy enhanced comfort and functionality in your living or working space.

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Agriculture Sector

Agriculture grapples with a unique challenge when it comes to climate change. On one hand, it's extremely susceptible due to its weather dependence, yet on the other hand, it's a significant contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, both directly through on-farm production, and indirectly via land use changes due to agricultural expansion. In total, agriculture, forestry, and other land use account for roughly 23% of global GHG emissions.

Nevertheless, agriculture has the potential to reduce both direct and indirect emissions and remove CO2 from the atmosphere through carbon sequestration in biomass and soils. These strategies, when coupled with practices that enhance productivity, can help agriculture combat climate change while ensuring food security and maintaining producer livelihoods. 

Yet, despite this potential, agriculture trails other sectors in terms of climate change commitments and actions. It's clear that more concerted efforts are needed to tap into this sector's vast potential for a positive impact on our planet's climate.

What can you do?

Adopting a vegan or even a low-meat diet can have an enormous positive impact on the environment. The shift away from animal products reduces the demand for resources like water and feed, and minimizes methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas released from livestock. This dietary change not only aligns with ethical considerations but significantly reduces your carbon footprint.

In addition to dietary adjustments, supporting local farmers who engage in regenerative farming practices offers another pathway to environmental stewardship. Regenerative agriculture focuses on improving soil health, enhancing biodiversity, and restoring ecosystem balance. By buying produce and food from these farmers, you're encouraging practices that naturally sequester carbon, thus aiding in the reduction of CO2 emissions.

Beyond your diet and shopping habits, there are additional ways to foster environmental well-being:

Support Parks: Your local, state, and national parks are vital guardians of biodiversity and natural beauty. By visiting them or donating to their causes, you endorse the preservation and enjoyment of these essential green spaces.

Land Restoration: Landowners have the opportunity to restore degraded land and set aside areas to regenerate naturally. These actions not only improve the land's aesthetic appeal but significantly enhance its CO2-storing capabilities.

Tree Planting Efforts: Participating in tree planting is a popular and tangible way to contribute to land restoration. However, it's crucial to plant native tree species. Non-native trees might disrupt the existing ecosystem, causing more harm than good. Planting indigenous species ensures that the restored areas will flourish and function as part of the natural environment.

Combining these lifestyle and community-based choices creates a comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability

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What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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