Per capita carbon emissions — or, Wait, you mean I’m a ‘bad guy’?

by Linda Kay Quintana

Linda Kay Quintana is the senior editor in the Publications Office at EWC.

Reusable Bag Man

At a recent Research Program brown bag talk here at the Center, I was reminded that despite some ecologically minded choices, I’m no environmental super hero.

The idea that there is a per capita measurement for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is a stark reminder that every person’s actions count.

I confess that I think of myself as relatively virtuous, when it comes to my “ecological footprint.” I don’t drive a car to work (although sometimes I ride the moped), I eat very little meat (at least if I am cooking it), my home doesn’t have air conditioning (lucky we have lovely breezes), I recycle (when it is convenient), I use cloth shopping bags (when I remember them), etc. But when I filled out the “carbon calculator” on the An Inconvenient Truth site, I was secretly disappointed that I still landed in the ‘Average’ range, compared to other Americans. And compared to the rest of the world, I’m definitely in the ‘bad guys’ range.

At a recent Research Program brown bag talk at the Center, “Global Climate Change: The Growing Role of the Asia-Pacific Region,” the speaker, Toufiq Siddiqi, Adjunct Senior Fellow in the research program, brought up per capita carbon dioxide emissions.

Per Capita emissions of carbon dioxide

For many, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 report has resolved the question of whether global warming is occurring and that much of this warming is caused by humans – what they call “anthropogenic warming.” Humans have been putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere faster than the ocean and the forests can absorb them. And it isn’t news that Americans have been contributing more than their share.

When you compare the total carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion, China is right behind the United States. If, however, you look at per capita emissions of carbon, the U.S. has 6.0 tonnes (metric tons) of carbon per capita versus 1.3 per capita in China (2006 numbers).

What kind of deprivation would Americans have to endure to significantly reduce their carbon emissions? Relatively little, it would seem. As you can see in the figure, countries with a reasonably comparable standard of living to the U.S. — like Germany or the UK — have a per capita carbon emission of 3.0 and 2.8 tonnes, respectively.

Americans can reach similar levels by making changes using existing technology: better insulation in homes, living in smaller (but not tiny) homes, driving more fuel-efficient cars, using energy-efficient lights and appliances, etc. These are all things that can be done without a dramatic change in lifestyle. And slightly larger changes can have even stronger effects: rather than commuting in that efficient car, walk, bike, carpool, or take public transportation to work instead; rather than run that efficient clothes drier — and you are lucky enough to have the space — laundry can be hung to dry.

And you may have already noticed the pattern. Just like the choice to drive a more fuel-efficient car that has lured away would-be SUV owners in the past few months, many choices to “green up” your life are also money savers: like something as small as choosing to buy food from the bulk bins to avoid excess packaging, or as large as opting for video conferencing rather than driving or flying to meet someone.

Siddiq argues that while all of these changes will have an impact, the goal of reducing the country’s emissions from fossil fuel combustion to 1 tonne carbon per capita will require the further development and widespread adoption of new technology (such as fuel cells, wind power, solar power and possibly a new generation of safer and less costly nuclear power plants).

And this kind of reduction isn’t likely to happen until 2050, even if policies are put into place immediately. Siddiqi stresses the need for action by the high carbon emitters: “The main objective should be on starting action now, and refining targets later, rather than finding reasons for delay.”

This would also provide the motivation to the larger developing countries like China and India to initiate a slowing in the rate of growth of their own emissions of greenhouse gases, with a view to capping them when their per capita emissions become comparable to those of the United States and other industrialized countries.

What are you doing?



One thought on “Per capita carbon emissions — or, Wait, you mean I’m a ‘bad guy’?

  1. Nice to read the article. Lot of reflections and insights together. We always should take the example of ‘Inconvenient Truth’ by Gore. However, his energy consumption at his house at Nashville is his own inconvenient truth. Consumption there is 20 times the national average according to the Tennesse Research Center. So, we need to identify those “who talk and do not follow’ and “people who do not talk but (are) saving the world.” I agree people who lead have to have access to resources. But it does not mean they should not contribute in a practical manner. It’s not possible to impact climate change if only ignorant people take care of it. More energy consumption is always by powerful people and especially powerful people of nations that are powerful economically, if not rich in social values and humanity.

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