More than half of all CO2 emissions since 1751 emitted in the last 30 years

AUTHORS: Thorfinn Stainforth – Bartosz Brzezinski

This graph shows that not only has humanity not succeeded in reducing emissions following warnings on climate change in the late 1980s and 90s, but the emissions have also grown substantially, and we have now emitted as much since 1990 as in all of history before that time.

This graph was recently updated to include emissions from 2020 and projected emissions for 2021. The new graph can be found here.

Slightly over half of all cumulative global CO2 emissions have taken place since 1990, the year of the first IPCC Assessment Report. The report re-confirmed anthropogenic climate change in a way that could not be ignored and led to the creation of the UNFCCC.

The year 1990 is often considered the latest dividing line after which policymakers can reasonably be considered to be aware of the dangers of human-induced climate change and thus clearly responsible for containing it, particularly in the countries responsible for the bulk of emissions until then. Indeed, significant civil society mobilisations were already underway by that time, and change was possible then.

The graph above, however, clearly shows that not only did we not succeed in reducing emissions following those warnings, they have, in fact, also grown substantially, and we have now emitted as much since 1990 as in all of history before that time. This is a significant failing of political and policy leaders. It represents a debt to future generations, as our collective carbon debt continues to pile up.

The longer serious climate action is delayed, the more disruptive both adaptation and mitigation will become. The last generation of leaders has shifted an increasing burden onto the next generation; today’s leaders cannot afford the same mistake.

“Already in 1990, we knew about humanity’s impact on climate change, and yet we’ve emitted more than half of all emissions since 1751 in the last 30 years alone. If we had taken action then, today’s young people and future generations would face a much easier challenge. We cannot afford another decade of inaction and have to flatten the emissions curve as part of Europe’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

— Thorfinn Stainforth, Policy Analyst in IEEP’s Low-carbon and Circular Economy Programme

New report on achieving the Green Deal in the post-COVID-19 era

The graph is part of IEEP’s new report “Green Deal for all in the post-COVID-19 era”, produced for the FEPS foundation, that analyses how best to implement the Green Deal in the new context and recommends the following approaches:

  • putting equity and well-being for all at its core;
  • harnessing it for greater cohesion and convergence in living standards amongst countries and regions;
  • fostering intergenerational solidarity through an equitable burden and benefit-sharing between age groups and between generations.


Source: Based on figures from Carbon Budget Project presented by Our World in Data, “Cumulative CO2 Emissions by world region, 1751-2017. [Accessed 24 April 2020]
Projected emissions for 2018-19 based on Global Carbon Budget 2019, by Pierre Friedlingstein, et al. (2019), Earth System Science Data, 11, 1783-1838, 2019, DOI: 10.5194/essd-11-1783-2019.
Concept based on the chart by Frumhoff, Peter. (15 December 2014) Global Warming Fact: More than Half of All Industrial CO2 Pollution Has Been Emitted Since 1988, Union of Concerned Scientists.

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