The Drivers of Long-run CO2 Emissions: A Global Perspective since 1800

New EHES working paper

Climate change is regarded by many as the greatest environmental challenge faced by present and future generations. While public awareness and climate policy are recent developments, mankind’s activity has been contributing to the rise in CO2 emissions for more than two centuries. New research by Sofia Teives Henriques and Karol J. Borowiecki investigates the drivers of changes in fossil-fuel CO2 emissions in a long-term and global perspective.

The unprecedented prosperity brought about by industrialization is strongly linked with wide-range changes in global patterns of energy consumption. These shifts have led to a significant rise in the level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, which is currently 40% above its long-term pre-industrial average.

Coal-burning in an English town during the late 19th century

This article explores the drivers behind long-run CO2 emissions across twelve presently developed economies, by decomposing changes in carbon emissions into population, income, technological and energy mix changes. By building on nine European countries, the United States, Canada and Japan, which were responsible for more than three quarters of worldwide CO2 emissions until 1950 and more than half until the 1980s, the authors are able to shed light on the drivers of historical carbon emissions in a global context.

Total CO2 emissions, Gt

The results indicate that at low levels of income per capita, fuel switching from biomass to fossil fuels is the main contributing factor to CO2 emission growth. Population and especially income effects become the most important emission drivers at higher levels of income and also dominate the overall long-run change. Technological change is the main offsetting factor. Particularly in the last decades, technological change and fuel switching have become important contributors to the decrease in emissions in Europe.

Cumulative time-series decomposition of the changes in CO2 emissions, 1800-2011, Gigatonnes

The results presented by Sofia and Karol indicate that the combined contribution of changes in energy intensity and fuel switching to the decline in CO2 emissions was weaker in the more recent period 1990-2011 than in 1973-1990. Nevertheless, Europe fared better in this regard than non-European countries, possibly thanks to stronger political commitment. This supports the view that in order to limit further emissions, a much more comprehensive global energy policy is needed.

The working paper can be downloaded here.

Sofia Teives Henriques is a Post Doc Researcher,
University of Southern Denmark
Karol J. Borowiecki is associate professor in
Economics at 
University of Southern Denmark