Climate change is such a broad and complex issue – many of us struggle to connect the dots to what we do on a daily basis. But, there’s a simple number that gets us to a good start – our carbon dioxide emissions per person (or carbon per capita).
Take control of your story!
This powerful metric tells our story in a single number – how we power our lives, what kind of society we’re a part of, what we eat, how much we buy. It’s the line that connects each of us to what’s happening to our climate – and it also empowers us.
How? Let’s look at Singapore – a country smaller than New York City, with a population of less than 6 million people. According to the International Energy Agency, this small island city-state contributed only 0.14% of global emissions from fuel combustion in 2013.
It’s a proverbial drop in the ocean compared to large emitters like China which contributed 28%, the United States which contributed 16%, or India at 6%. Anyone would be tempted to ask – what difference can a small country like Singapore make?
What if you look at it from a carbon per capita perspective? Singapore’s emissions become 25% higher than China’s and about six times that of India.
Suddenly, it sounds like a different story. A story where what we choose to do matters.
5 Facts You Need To Know
The International Energy Agency has compiled statistics on the carbon dioxide emissions from burning fuel, per person, from 1990 to 2013. Here are five facts you might not have known:
#1: The average global person in the world uses 4.5 metric tons of carbon emissions each year.
#2: Australia, United States and Canada have some of the highest carbon emissions per capita, at over triple the world average.
#3: Carbon per capita in India and Indonesia has more than doubled since 1990, yet this is still comparatively small at less than 2 metric tons per person in 2013.
#4: Carbon per capita in China has more than tripled since 1990 – yet at 6.6 metric tons per person in 2013, this is still less than half that of Australia, the United States, or Canada.
Usually, a high carbon per capita denotes a high quality of life – at least, in our out-dated fossil fuel economy. How is it that China, with its close-to-1.4 billion people, can ‘afford’ 6.6 metric tons per person?
The answer lies in how carbon per capita is calculated. Did you know that this is commonly calculated based on production, and not consumption?
Stuff that is made in a factory in China, for example, generates emissions that are counted as part of what the country produces, instead of overseas where the product is actually used and consumed.
What happens when you look at consumption carbon emissions per capita?
Research indicates that consumption carbon per capita is 1.8 in China and 18.6 metric tons in the United States – a much wider gap than the production carbon per capita of 6.6 in China and 16.3 metric tons in the United States.
Why? For the basic reason that due to global trade and lowest-cost, free-market economics, much of the consumption in developed countries is effectively outsourced to others.
The international focus on production carbon per capita (which is also how the International Energy Agency calculates it) may perhaps encourage some factories to adopt cleaner manufacturing practices, but at what cost?
Instead of shining a light on how unsustainable our unchecked consumption habits are, this production calculation approach helps to hide just how severe the climate inequality between countries has become.
The skewed picture we see with production carbon per capita can also be misleading. How can any of us point the finger of blame at countries which are only churning out products we demand, at the low price that we want to pay? Yet, this is the exact reason that seems to give many of us a moral ‘free pass’ to continue the high-consumption lifestyles we enjoy.
Research shows that 60% of global emissions result from household consumption – in other words, the decisions we each make on what we eat, how we travel, the energy we use and the stuff we buy, make a considerable difference.
Many of us can afford to implement simple climate solutions that start with significant lifestyle changes. While simple, these actions can also serve to empower us to demand more accountability from our leaders, to implement climate solutions that rely on top-down policy interventions and large-scale, public-private investment.
What’s a good example? Consider Sweden.
#5: Sweden has one of the fastest rates of cutting emissions.
They’ve reduced their production carbon per capita by 36%, to 3.9 metric tons per person in 2013. This is around 4 times smaller than the emission from the average American, and even lower than the emissions from the average global citizen.
How is Sweden doing it?
Known for meatballs, flatpack furniture, and of course that famous “Swedish Chef”, this country of 10 million people is leading the way in showing that growth and quality of life can come with a rapidly shrinking carbon per capita.
At 3.9 metric tons per person, the average Swede uses less than half the carbon of the average Singaporean, German or Dutch, and less than a quarter of the average American or Australian. How are they doing it?
According to their national government, Sweden has driven fossil fuel use down by pricing carbon in, through energy taxes and a specific CO2 tax.
Almost all of their electricity is low-carbon, from a primary mix of hydropower and nuclear, with a generous sprinkling of biomass and wind. Over half of their primary energy used comes from renewable sources.
They’re not stopping here. Sweden has its eye on reaching zero-carbon by 2045, with a little help from offsetting through international carbon projects. To get where they want to be, Swedes are aiming for fossil-free streets by 2030, with the government providing tax exemptions for electric and ethanol-powered vehicles.
Not all of us have the natural resources Sweden has, but we can all learn from their ambition and willpower to cut emissions.
Convergence of carbon per person?
Global average carbon per capita has risen by around 15% between 1990 and 2013. While some like Sweden, Denmark and the UK have reduced this by over 25%, others like Australia and Japan have grown this by more than 10%.
From less than 2 to over 16 metric tonnes per person, the stark climate and carbon inequality means we are more different than alike, more divided than united, today.
Will we see a carbon convergence per person, for a more egalitarian and sustainable future? How you choose to write your own carbon per capita story?
The PDF version of the infographic is available on Slideshare:
“CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion“, 2015 Edition © OECD/IEA:
Extract of IEA data shown below for a selection of countries and regions, ranked by % change between 1990 and 2013.
CO2 Emissions from fossil fuel combustion / population (tonnes of CO2):
|Country||1990||2013||% change (1990-2013)|
|People’s Rep. of China||1.9||6.6||243.8%|
|G7 (the U.S, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the U.K.)||13.01||11.64||-10.5%|
CO2 Emissions from fuel combustion (million tonnes of CO2)
|Country||Year 2013||% total|
|European Union – 28||3,340||10%|
|Rest of World||14,706||46%|
Figure extract from “Environmental Impact Assessment of Household Consumption“, 2015, Journal of Industrial Ecology, by Ivanova et al.