Watch The Fascinating History Of The World’s Exploding Emissions

A brief history of emissions, from 1750 to today–along with all the bad things that are going to happen if we don’t stop them.

Watch The Fascinating History Of The World’s Exploding Emissions
“Some damages are here to stay . . . but the goal is to avoid the worst.”

In the 1800s, London was the largest city in the world and at the heart of the beginnings of climate change: Emissions from burning coal, scaled up by the demands of the Industrial Revolution, caused smog so dense that it stopped trains and spiked crime rates on the worst days. A new data visualization shows the growth of those emissions–and how the rest of the world followed.


“We literally wanted to show where and when CO2 was emitted in the last 250 years–and also where it might be emitted in the coming 80 years if no climate action is taken,” Boris Müller, an interaction design professor at University of Applied Sciences Potsdam, writes in an email.  Müller created the visualization along with scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

For the years 1750 to 2013, the researchers used data that estimates fossil fuel use and cement production at locations around the world, mapping cumulative emissions as a constantly growing spike at each location. For 2014 to 2100, they used data that models climate futures based on socioeconomic factors.

By the early 1900s, emissions were soaring in cities in the U.S. along with Europe; by the late 1990s and early 2000s, they were soaring in parts of Asia and the Middle East. By 2100, the spikes on the visualization’s model of the Earth are everywhere around the world, but almost incomprehensibly large in places like North America.

Today, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is more than 400 parts per million, higher than it’s ever been in human history. Before the Industrial Revolution, the average was 280 parts per million. As carbon dioxide and other gases trap heat, the average temperature of the world keeps breaking records: 2014 was the warmest recorded year in the Earth’s history, followed by 2015, followed by 2016. This year is on track to be second-warmest.

Some emission trends are changing. The U.K., the origin of modern coal power, now plans to close its last coal plant. But the visualization emphasizes how close we are to overspending our “carbon budget”–the cumulative amount of emissions possible before catastrophic climate change is unavoidable.


Around one degree of warming has already happened since the Industrial Revolution, and even if the Paris climate agreement goals are met, more warming will continue. “Some damages are here to stay, e.g. intensifying storms, heat waves and droughts, increasing sea levels, bleaching coral reefs, but the goal is to avoid the worst,” writes Elmar Kriegler, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

With two degrees of warming, he says, many regions in the world will reach the limits of their capacity to adapt. Beyond two degrees of warming, it becomes more likely that large-scale tipping points could be triggered, leading to more devastating change.

“We believe that this can still be avoided and that reducing CO2 emissions to zero in the second half of the century can be achieved with decisive global-scale emissions reductions policies and efforts,” says Kriegler. “The Paris agreement can be an important initializer for this development if embraced fully by the world’s leading emitters and powers. But as we say in the movie, the time to act is now.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.