Environment & Natural Resources

How Americans interact with the environment and natural resources impacts everything from the economy to health.

Latest update on February 10, 2023

What is the state of the environment and natural resources in the US?

The government keeps track of information about the environment and how people impact it. This includes data about the weather, which helps us understand climate patterns, and the gases that people release into the air, called greenhouse gases. It also includes information about protecting land and species that are in danger. This page shares some of this information about the environment and natural resources to help answer basic questions about the world around us.

Greenhouse gas emissions

In 2020, a net total of 5.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (or equivalent) was emitted in the US.

That's 15.8 metric tons per person.

Emissions in the US peaked in 2007.

Greenhouse gases include a group of gases — primarily carbon dioxide — that are present in the earth's atmosphere that traps heat. Greenhouse gas emissions refer to the amount of gas added by human activity. Fossil fuel burning is the primary cause of emissions, but other activities such as deforestation and industrial processes also create greenhouse gases. After rejoining the Paris Agreement — an international treaty addressing climate change — the US pledged to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions in the US by 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The EPA compiles and calculates emissions data from several sources, including other agencies. It also runs the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, requiring large emission sources, fuel and industrial gas supplies, and carbon dioxide injection sites to provide the agency with data.

Since 1990, emissions in the United States have decreased. Every year since 2017, transportation has been the leading emissions sector. This includes 2020 when emissions dropped 10.6% over the previous year due to the pandemic.

Greenhouse gas emissions by state

In 2020, Texas had the most greenhouse gas emissions of any state, with a net total of 786.6 million metric tons. Wyoming had the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita at 145.5 metric tons.

Population size, population density, types of economic activity, and energy sources are all factors in the amount of emissions produced. States produce different amounts of emissions per person due to these factors.

Energy-related emissions worldwide

In 2021, there were 35.3 billion metric tons of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.

The Energy Information Administration tracks energy-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. While energy is the primary source of emissions, the data is not comprehensive of all greenhouse gas emissions. As of 2021, five countries — China, United States, India, Russia, and Japan — accounted for more than 60% of worldwide energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

Annual average temperature difference by state

In 2022, the average temperature in the contiguous US was 1.44°F higher than the 20th-century average of 52.02°F.

Between 1901 to 2000, the average annual temperature of the contiguous US was 52.02°F. So far, every year in the 21st century has been warmer than the 20th-century average.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks temperature, precipitation and other weather data dating back to 1895. Compiled together, this data illustrates climate trends at various geographic levels, including cities, counties, states, the contiguous US, and the world. Average annual temperatures are calculated by compiling reading from weather stations throughout the year. This data is then compared to a benchmark from a previous average.

While there is weather variation in various times and places, most areas have been warmer in recent decades. Explore Climate in the United States to see how unusual county-level temperatures and precipitation have been in recent years.

Protected lands by state

In 2022, 727.7 million acres of land in the US were under protection to maintain wildlife.

The total land protected accounts for 29.8% of all land in the US. That is nearly the same as the three largest states — Alaska, Texas, and California — combined.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) maintains a database categorizing the 2.4 billion acres of land comprising the United States based on whether it is a protected area. Protected areas are defined by the agency as “dedicated to the preservation of biological diversity and to other natural (including extraction), recreation and cultural uses, managed for these purposes through legal or other effective means.”

Most of that land is owned by the federal government. Four agencies oversee most of the land: Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. The degree of protection varies. Some land protections only apply to endangered and threatened species and can allow for intensive recreation or extraction of natural resources like mining or logging. Others offer complete protection to keep nature undisturbed.

Western states have more land protected than those in the east, both in terms of area and share. Alaska has the most land under protection at over 238 million acres. Nearly 80% of land in Nevada is protected, the highest percentage of any state.

Threatened and endangered species

As of December 2023, there were 939 US-based plant species and 729 US-based animal species listed as either threatened or endangered.

The Fish & Wildlife Service is the federal agency that determines which animal and plant species are considered endangered or threatened in the United States under the Endangered Species Act. Designation grants species federal protections. The agency maintains a current list of all species listed.

Water use

In 2015, Americans were using 990.8 gallons of water per person every day.

Every five years, the US Geological Survey (USGS) releases estimates on how much water is used in the US and how. In 2015, water use was estimated to be 322 billion gallons per day, mostly used for power and irrigation. USGS plans to release 2020 estimates in 2023.

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