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Causes of Climate Changes: Automobile Emissions

Causes of Climate Change: Emissions from Automobiles, Trucks and Other Motor Vehicles

The DOTsays,

Percentage of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 2006 (all gases, in Teragram [Tg] CO2 equivalent)

Emissions from automobiles, such as CO (Carbon monoxide) and NO (Nitric Oxide) can effect our climate. Based on current GHG emission reporting guidelines, the transportation sector directly accounted for about 28 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions in 2006, making it the second largest source of GHG emissions, behind only electricity generation (34 percent). Nearly 97 percent of transportation GHG emissions came through direct combustion of fossil fuels, with the remainder due to carbon dioxide (CO2) from electricity (for rail) and Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) emitted from vehicle air conditioners and refrigerated transport. Transportation is the largest end-use sector emitting CO2, the most prevalent greenhouse gas. Estimates of GHG emissions do not include additional "lifecycle" emissions related to transportation, such as the extraction and refining of fuel and the manufacture of vehicles, which are also a significant source of domestic and international GHG emissions.

U.S. Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Source, 2006 (all gases, in Tg CO2 equivalent)

Key points, from the EPA,

  • the majority of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation are CO2 emissions resulting from the combustion of petroleum-based products, like gasoline, in internal combustion engines.

  • The largest sources of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions include passenger cars and light-duty trucks, including sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks, and minivans. These sources account for over half of the emissions from the sector.

  • The remainder of greenhouse gas emissions comes from other modes of transportation, including freight trucks, commercial aircraft, ships, boats, and trains as well as pipelines and lubricants.

  • Relatively small amounts of methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are emitted during fuel combustion.

In addition, a small amount of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) emissions are included in the Transportation sector. These emissions result from the use of mobile air conditioners and refrigerated transport.

Emissions and Trends

Again, from the EPA: In 2012, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation accounted for about 28% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second largest contributor of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions after the Electricity sector. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have increased by about 18% since 1990. This historical increase is largely due to increased demand for travel and the limited gains in fuel efficiency across the U.S. vehicle fleet. The number of vehicle miles traveled by passenger cars and light-duty trucks increased 35% from 1990 to 2012. The increase in travel miles is attributed to several factors, including population growth, economic growth, urban sprawl, and low fuel prices during the beginning of this period. Between 1990 and 2004, average fuel economy among new vehicles sold annually declined, as sales of light-duty trucks increased. However, new vehicle fuel economy began to improve in 2005, largely due to a lower light-duty truck market share and higher fuel economy standards.

Wikipedia provides a slightly different breakdown, but similar:

"Greenhouse gas by sector 2000" by Greenhouse Gas by Sector.png: Robert A. Rohdederivative work: Setreset (talk) - Greenhouse Gas by Sector.png. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -


  1. Road Transportation Emerges as Key Driver of Warming , Feb. 18, 2010, NASA, In their analysis, motor vehicles emerged as the greatest contributor to atmospheric warming now and in the near term. Cars, buses, and trucks release pollutants and greenhouse gases that promote warming, while emitting few aerosols that counteract it.The researchers found that the burning of household biofuels -- primarily wood and animal dung for home heating and cooking -- contribute the second most warming. And raising livestock, particularly methane-producing cattle, contribute the third most.