CO2 from Human Action

Anthropogenic CO₂ emission increased dramatically once humans started burning fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—as their primary energy sources during the industrial revolution. Quality of life improved greatly for those societies and the levels of CO₂ in the atmosphere have increased.
Humans and CO2 Emissions

Human (anthropogenic) activity, such as burning fossil fuels, making cement, and plowing the prairie, releases greenhouse gases like CO2 to the atmosphere.

Over 100 years ago, Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist and Nobel Prize winner, hypothesized that the emissions of anthropogenic CO2 from fossil fuel combustion could eventually have a profound effect on the heat budget of the atmosphere. In 1904, Arrhenius stated that "the slight percentage of carbonic acid (archaic term for CO2) in the atmosphere may, by the advances of industry, be changed to a noticeable degree in the course of a few centuries."1

Heat Budget

The balance between incoming heat absorbed by Earth and the outgoing heat escaping Earth.

Beginning in the 1850s, the use of fossil fuels became more common as the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in Europe and North America. Since that time, humans have used the energy in fossil fuels to build a dynamic global economy and an improved quality of life. Over this same period, human activity has added over 1600 billion metric tons of anthropogenic CO22 to the global carbon cycle. Since the 1850s, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased over 40%,3 and the concentrations of other greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, have also increased (about 130% and 20%, respectively).4

Humans are currently adding over 35 billion metric tons of anthropogenic CO2 to the atmosphere each year, with about 5.3 billion metric tons coming from the United States in 2017.5 Most of the CO2 emissions result from the burning of fossil fuels in transportation, electrical generation, and heating buildings.3 The United States topped the list of anthropogenic CO2 emitters as manufacturing and population grew and quality of life improved in the wake of World War II. China surpassed the United States in CO2 emissions starting in 2007 when China tapped its vast coal resources to bring electricity to more of its people and energy to power its recent industrial age.

35 Billion Metric Tons of Anthropogenic CO2 Added to the Atmosphere in 2017

Global anthropogenic CO₂ emissions for 2017 and top 20 co2 emitting countries.


Reducing the emissions of anthropogenic CO2 and other greenhouse gases is a concrete step that humans can take to address increasing levels in the atmosphere.6 Carbon capture and storage is an effective method to remove those anthropogenic CO2 emissions and still provide the energy to power the globe—both for developed and developing societies.

Smoke is particles of unburned carbon and ash. In modern emissions-controlled coal-fired power plants, what appears to be smoke is really hot steam of burning fuel condensing to clouds as it hits the cool atmosphere.

A Shadow of Its Former Self – With today’s modern cleanup technologies, the black smoke of preregulation times has been replaced by white clouds of steam from the chimneys of U.S. power plants.

Notes and References
  1. (accessed January 2020).
  2. Emissions from fossil fuels and cement production from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at AppState, (accessed January 2020).
  3. From 283 ppm in 1850 to 411 ppm in 2019, data from (accessed January 2020).
  4. CH4 increase from 801 ppb in 1850 to 1858 ppb in 2018; N2O increase from 275 ppb in 1850 to 329 ppb in 2016, data from (accessed January 2020).
  5. (accessed January 2020).
  6. Pacala, S., and Sokolow, R., 2004, Stabilization wedges—solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologies: Science, v. 305, p. 968–972.