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In 2016, fossil fuels were the source of about 76% of total U.S. human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

In the United States, most of the emissions of human-caused (anthropogenic) greenhouse gases (GHG) come primarily from burning fossil fuels—coal, hydrocarbon gas liquids, natural gas, and petroleum—for energy use. Economic growth (with short-term fluctuations in growth rate) and weather patterns that affect heating and cooling needs are the main factors that drive the amount of energy consumed. Energy prices and government policies can also affect the sources or types of energy consumed.

Carbon dioxide

In 2016, emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced from burning fossil fuels for energy were equal to 76% of total U.S. anthropogenic GHG emissions (based on global warming potential) and about 94% of total U.S. anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions from other anthropogenic sources and activities were about 5% of total GHG emissions and about 6% of total CO2 emissions.1

Other greenhouse gases

The U.S. and international GHG emissions estimates include several other GHG that are emitted as a result of human activity:

  • Methane (CH4), which comes from landfills, coal mines, agriculture, and oil and natural gas operations
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O), which comes from using nitrogen fertilizers and certain industrial and waste management processes and burning fossil fuels
  • High global warming potential (GWP) gases, which are human-made industrial gases
    • Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)
    • Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)
    • Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)
    • Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)

The combined emissions of these other greenhouse gases accounted for about 18% of total U.S. anthropogenic GHG emissions in 2016.

The energy connection

Fossil fuels consist mainly of carbon and hydrogen. When fossil fuels are burned, oxygen combines with carbon to form CO2 and with hydrogen to form water (H2O). These reactions release heat that we use for energy. The amount of CO2 produced depends on the carbon content of the fuel, and the amount of heat produced depends on the carbon and hydrogen content. Because natural gas, which is mostly methane (CH4), has a high hydrogen content, combustion of natural gas produces less CO2 for the same amount of heat produced from burning other fossil fuels. For example, for the same amount of energy produced, burning natural gas produces about half of the amount of CO2 produced by burning coal.

Nearly half of U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions are from petroleum use

In 2017, about 45% of U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions came from burning petroleum fuels, 29% came from burning natural gas, and 26% came from burning coal.2 Although the industrial sector is the largest consumer of energy (including direct fuel use and electricity purchased from the electric power sector), the transportation sector emits more CO2 because of its near complete dependence on petroleum fuels.

2 pie charts. The first pie chart shows U.S. energy consumption by major fuel/energy sources in 2016: Coal 15%; Non-fossil fuels 19%, natural gas 29%, and petroleum 37%. The second pie chart shows the resulting carbon dioxide emissions by type of fossil fuel: Coal 26%, natural gas 29%, and petroleum 45%.

The residential sector and the commercial sector have lower CO2 emission levels than the transportation sector and the industrial sector. Most of the CO2 emissions associated with energy use by the residential and commercial sectors are from fossil fuel combustion by the electric power sector to produce the electricity that it sells to the residential and commercial sectors.

2 stacked bar charts: The first showing U.S. energy consumption by end-use sectors in 2016 and the second shwoing resulting carbon dioxide emissions for each sector.

Coal is the dominant CO2 emissions source related to electricity generation

In 2017, the electric power sector accounted for about 38% of U.S. primary energy consumption and produced 34% of total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions. Coal accounted for 69% and natural gas for 29% of electric power sector CO2 emissions. Emissions from burning petroleum fuels and non-biomass waste (mainly plastics) in waste-to-energy power plants and emissions from some types of geothermal power plants accounted for about 2% of power sector CO2 emissions.

2 pie charts. The first pie chart shows the shares of the types of energy consumption by U.S. electric power sector for electricity generation in 2016: Coal 34%; Non-fossil fuels 37%, natural gas 27%, and petroleum 1%. The second pie chart shows the resulting shares of carbon dioxide emissions from consumption of fossil fuels for electricity generation: Coal 68% natural gas 30%, and 1etroleum 3%.