Over the past two centuries, the size of the world’s economy has increased more than a hundredfold. That expansion was powered by fossil fuels, the burning of which helped raise the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere from 0.0284 percent in 1820 to 0.0407 percent in 2017. 

Many scientists worry that this increase in atmospheric CO2 could lead to deleterious long-term consequences, including runaway global warming. We are some years away from seeing dependable and financially viable sources of energy that are completely harmless to the environment. In the meantime, economic growth and, consequently, people’s rising standards of living, will continue to require fossil fuels. The good news is that production processes are becoming more environmentally friendly throughout much of the world.

The World Bank estimates that the United States produces roughly 24 percent of the world’s wealth. The European Union produces 22 percent, China 15 percent, Japan 6 percent, and Germany, if considered independently of the EU, 5 percent. Now consider CO2 emissions per dollar of gross domestic product. In 1960, the United States emitted 0.94 kilograms of CO2 per dollar of output. By 2014, that number fell to 0.32. That’s a reduction of 66 percent. The EU has reduced its CO2 emissions per dollar of output from 0.57 to 0.19 kilograms. That’s a reduction of 68 percent. 

After China abandoned its inefficient communist system of production, its CO2 emissions per dollar of output fell from 5 kilograms in 1978 to 1.24 kilograms in 2014—a reduction of 75 percent. Japanese emissions fell from 0.3 kilograms in 1960 to 0.2 kilograms in 2014, or 33 percent. Finally, German emissions fell from 0.34 kilograms in 1991 to 0.2 kilograms in 2017, or 41 percent. 

This downward trend in emissions per dollar is largely the result of businesses’ constant efforts to reduce their energy costs. That’s one of the reasons why global CO2 emissions per dollar of output declined from 0.84 kilograms in 1960 to 0.5 kilograms in 2014, or 41 percent. Moreover, technological improvements in production processes are likely to continue to reduce fuel consumption per dollar of output and, consequently, lower CO2 emissions even further. 

Reductions in absolute quantities of CO2 have not yet materialized outside of economic recessions, but this type of progress is at least a distinct step in a positive direction.