Per capita emissions and fairness

Per capita emissions by state, compared with sustainable emissions

As mentioned before, the Stern Review cites a figure of five gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent as the quantity that can be sustainably absorbed by the planet each year. Given the present population of 6.6 billion people, that means our fair share is about 750kg of emissions each, per year. Right now, Canadian emissions are about 23 tonnes per person per year. They are highest in Alberta – 71 tonnes – and lowest in Quebec – 12 tonnes. Even in hydro-blessed Quebec, emissions are fifteen times too high.

Everybody knows that emissions in the developed world are too high. The average Australian emits 25.9 tonnes. For Americans it is 22.9; the nuclear-powered French emit 8.7 tonnes each. The European average is 10.6 tonnes per person, while North America weighs in at 23.1. One round-trip flight from New York to London produces the amount of greenhouse gas that one person can sustainably emit in three and a half years. These are not the kind of numbers that can be brought down with a few more wind turbines and hybrid cars; the energy basis of all states needs to be fundamentally altered, replacing a system where energy production and use are associated with greenhouse gas emissions with one where that is no longer the case.

What is less often acknowledged is that emissions in the developing world are already too high. Chinese per capita emissions are 3.9 tonnes, while those in India are 1.8. The list of countries by per-capita greenhouse gas emissions on Wikipedia shows three states where per-capita emissions are below 750kg: Comoros, Kiribati, and Uruguay. Even the average level of emissions for sub-Saharan Africa is almost six times above the sustainable level for our current world population.

And our world population is growing.

All this raises serious questions of fairness. Obviously, people in North America and Europe have been overshooting our sustainable level of emissions for a long time. Do developing countries have a similar right to overshoot? How are their rights affected by what we now know about climate change? If they do have a right to emit more than 750kg per person, does that mean people in developed states have a corresponding duty to emit less than that? Even if we emitted nothing at all, we couldn’t provide enough space within the sustainable carbon budget for them to emit as much as we are now.

The only option is for everyone to decarbonize. The developed world needs to lead the way, in order to show that it can be done. The developing world needs to acknowledge that the right to develop does not trump other forms of legal and ethical obligation: both to those alive now and to future generations. People in both developed and developing states may also want to reconsider their assumptions about the desirability of population growth. Spending a few centuries with people voluntarily restricting their fertility below the natural rate of replacement could do a lot to limit the magnitude of the ecological challenges we will face as a species.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

31 thoughts on “Per capita emissions and fairness”

  1. I’m surprised the Americans emit so much more than Europeans.

    While it doesn’t affect the basic message, I think you could make the case that fair quotas shouldn’t simply be 5 gigatonnes/6.6B people but that, for example, those in colder climes should be allowed more.

  2. Why does everyone have the right to a numerically equal share? (Are we all of a sudden back in the first 103 seminar?)

  3. By the way, I don’t think the position that everyone on the planet has equal rights to some substantial good can be held consistently unless you declare state sovereignty to be irrational.

    Also, realizing that I have a moral right to emit more carbon than someone who lives a different kind of life than me comes from recognizing there is no division between wants and needs that can be evaluated outside of a particular culture. For me, a computer is a need, and by that I mean I wouldn’t be as human if they were taken away. Part of what makes me a human is civilization, and if crucial bits of that are removed, I can’t actualize my freedom. Other humans don’t have computers (or at least until the 100$ laptop program really gets underway), but since they havn’t had them in the past, and don’t have their existence defined by these kinds of tools, it doesn’t make them “less human” to be deprived of them.

  4. The message I get from this is:

    There is no way we are going to be able to tackle climate change. We may as well enjoy ourselves before the world goes to hell.

    Am I wrong?

  5. Ben,

    I think the best way to deal with special claims for extra emissions (colder climates, etc) is to allow people to trade their emission rights with others. That way, those who need more will have a means to access them.

    If you try to find a grand calculation that takes into account legitimate claims for more or less, you will produce piles of complexity without satisfying anyone. That is even more true if people move around. If I choose to move from Kenya to Iceland, should my allocation rise? Does it matter why I moved?

  6. Tristan,

    State sovereignty isn’t rational or irrational. It doesn’t exist to serve a purpose – it exists because it is a stable situation into which history has collapsed.

  7. Why does everyone have the right to a numerically equal share?

    Even if you don’t accept that this is the case, the chart above reveals two useful things: the sharply unequal distribution at present and the overall need for massive reductions.

  8. If I don’t believe its the case that people have a right to a numerically equal share, then the connection between this chart and the need for massive reduction seems dubious. I might believe there needs to be massive reductions, but there is no necessary connection between that and my need to change my individual habits, other than my habit of who I vote for and on what issues.

  9. If I don’t believe its the case that people have a right to a numerically equal share, then the connection between this chart and the need for massive reduction seems dubious.

    Do you think Canadians have the right to emit 31 times more per year than would be sustainable for people in general? I cannot see how that is a tenable argument. You can argue, as Ben did, that some people have the right to a bit more than others. You cannot really escape the fact that, in sharing the common resource of global carbon absorption, equal per capita shares is about as fair as we can get.

    How else would you divide the five gigatonne pot? Letting everyone emit as much as they wish clearly isn’t working.

    I might believe there needs to be massive reductions, but there is no necessary connection between that and my need to change my individual habits, other than my habit of who I vote for and on what issues.

    Convincing you, and everyone, to change their individual habits cannot be done with a single graph. That said, I think the distribution shown above does help to make the case.

    Another nice thing shown by the graph is that there are already developed societies with a high quality of life doing much better than we are. Nobody thinks of France as a deprived society, yet their per-capita emissions are well under half of ours.

  10. There is no way we are going to be able to tackle climate change. We may as well enjoy ourselves before the world goes to hell.

    The presentation of the problem in the post above is pretty stark. The day we reach a sustainable level of emissions is the day we cease to induce a net warming effect upon the planet. The time it takes us to reach that point determines how bad the damage will be.

    As for the question of whether people will be able to take the long view and make sensible and ethical choices: I give humanity one chance in two. That is to say, we arrange to stop climate change before its harmful effects destroy the capacity of the planet to sustain civilizations like our own.

  11. Of course, one option perennially ignored is a concerted effort to reduce the Earth’s population. I wonder how difficult it would be to get the global birth rate to that of say, Japan or Italy? A sustainable and equitable global economy that doesn’t impoverish everyone would be a lot easier if the world had only 2 billion people instead of 10.

  12. A global One Child Policy could have the human population with each generation.

    One problem with the approach is that governments assume that more population equals more power and security. Look at all the attention India and China got for passing the billion mark.

  13. If I don’t believe its the case that people have a right to a numerically equal share, then the connection between this chart and the need for massive reduction seems dubious

    Perhaps people do not have the ‘right’ to any share at all. Rather, whatever they take requires justification. It is pretty hard to justify taking more than your share, as one of earth’s 6.6 billion.

  14. Nature 451, 297-298 (17 January 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature06593; Published online 16 January 2008

    A steep road to climate stabilization

    Pierre Friedlingstein

    The only way to stabilize Earth’s climate is to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but future changes in the carbon cycle might make this more difficult than has been thought.

    “Industrialized countries are currently focusing on ‘climate mitigation’ policies that, when implemented, will result in reduced emission of greenhouse gases. It was recently proposed that by 2020 each of these countries should reduce emissions to 60–75% of the amount that they emitted in 1990; and by 2050, to 25–50% of 1990 levels. However, no such agreement was reached at the last UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties, held in Bali in December 2007. Nevertheless, these proposals, if acted on soon, are good news. But, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, that’s one giant leap for policy-makers, but one small step for the global environment…

    From a glance at the global carbon cycle, it is clear that this reduction will not come close to stabilizing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. At present, deforestation and the combustion of fossil fuels release almost 10 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year in the form of CO2 — the main greenhouse gas. Of this amount, about 4.5 billion tonnes accumulate in the atmosphere, and the rest is absorbed by the ocean and by land-based ecosystem. To stabilize atmospheric CO2 at the current concentration, emissions would need to be reduced to the amount that is taken up by the ocean and land — about 5.5 billion tonnes, which equates to an immediate 45% reduction in global emissions of CO2. This roughly matches the objective proposed for the industrialized countries for 2050, by which time considerably more CO2 will have accumulated in the atmosphere…

    In fact, climate stabilization might be even more complex. Recent observations and simulations indicate that the current uptake of atmospheric CO2 might be adversely affected by climate change. Careful measurements of the airborne proportion of anthropogenic emissions (that is, the proportion that remains in the atmosphere) show a small increasing trend in the past 50 years. Therefore, the proportion of anthropogenic CO2 absorbed by the ocean and the land is becoming smaller. The Southern Ocean might be responsible for this reduction, because changes in ocean-surface winds seem to have decreased the amount of CO2 taken up by surface waters in this region in recent years.

  15. “This environmentally concerned view needs to be taken up and followed through by a succession of post-Kyoto regulations in the coming decades that lead to larger and larger reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and eventually to stabilization of Earth’s climate in a state that is safe for society and the environment. There is, unfortunately, no mystery: to stabilize climate, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must be stabilized, and to do so — given the limited capacity of the natural environment to absorb these gases — anthropogenic emissions will eventually need to be reduced to zero.”

  16. ‘Stabilizing climate requires near-zero emissions’
    A new climate science paper calls for dramatic action

    Avoiding climate catastrophe will probably require going to near-zero net emissions of greenhouse gases this century. That is the conclusion of a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters (subs. req’d) co-authored by one of my favorite climate scientists, Ken Caldeira, whose papers always merit attention. Here is the abstract:

    Current international climate mitigation efforts aim to stabilize levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, human-induced climate warming will continue for many centuries, even after atmospheric CO2 levels are stabilized. In this paper, we assess the CO2 emissions requirements for global temperature stabilization within the next several centuries, using an Earth system model of intermediate complexity. We show first that a single pulse of carbon released into the atmosphere increases globally averaged surface temperature by an amount that remains approximately constant for several centuries, even in the absence of additional emissions. We then show that to hold climate constant at a given global temperature requires near-zero future carbon emissions. Our results suggest that future anthropogenic emissions would need to be eliminated in order to stabilize global-mean temperatures. As a consequence, any future anthropogenic emissions will commit the climate system to warming that is essentially irreversible on centennial timescales.

  17. The fraction of CO2 remaining in the air, after emission by fossil fuel burning, declines rapidly at first, but 1/3 remains in the air after a century and 1/5 after a millennium (Atmos. Chem. Phys. 7, 2287-2312, 2007).

  18. The question is east to answer. Were the western scientists so basic that in the initial “tell offs” to major giagantic and very powerful developing nations to errr shut it -and yes it was delivered just like that!, that they would just stop everything and remain poor and dependent to an arrogant and decadent few.
    I think anyone with a figure of over 5 megatonnes should stand aside and learn from those with lesser figures to sort it out.

    Infact any nation with such a figure should not be allowed anywhere neare a discussion on emissions and climate change until they show an accelerating and accelerated downturn.

    No can do? No say nothing please!

    Thank you. This is the 21st centuary, no one is going to be beholden to a few Western Powermongers.

    Leran manners, Learn attitude and Learn to be environmaently friendly. Otherwise SHUT UP and be told.

  19. Q: With respect to your excellent graph on page 13, I find the focus on per capita emissions somewhat troubling. I live in Canada. Indeed we have a large per capita footprint (23 t/person/year) but there are only 0.03 billion of us! The total annual emission is therefore 0.7 Gt. In comparison the Chinese currently emit a paltry 4 Gt/person/year but there are 1.5 billion of them = a gross output of 6 Gt/year. As it all ends up in the atmosphere, the science would suggest we focus on the biggest gross emitters. The politics seems to dictate otherwise. We’ll do our part and feel good about it, but it would appear that if everyone in Canada cut our emissions in half (say), the overall effect will be negligible.

    A: Are you serious? If you go for the attitude that “there’s only any purpose in big countries cutting their emissions, not small ones”, you reach ridiculous conclusions: first, on a planet in which all countries were the same size as Canada, no-one would do anything. Second, China could easily declare itself to be composed of 33 countries, each the same size as Canada, and invoke your argument to say that there is no point in them doing anything. You need to have a think about the tragedy of the commons. It is EVERYONE’s _per_capita_ footprint that matters. We are all “only one person” and “only paltry”, and the only ethical way forward is that we all have to reduce, especially the gluttons who use 23 t per person per year. Think about it!

  20. As the G8 leaders know, a global cut of 50% offers only a faint-to-non-existent chance of meeting their ultimate objective: preventing more than two degrees of warming. In its latest summary of climate science, published in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that a high chance of preventing more than two degrees of warming requires a global cut of 85% by 2050(4). In drafting the climate change act, the UK government promised to keep matching the target to the science. It has already raised its cut from 60% to 80% by 2050. If it sticks to its promise it will have to raise it again.

    Global average CO2 emissions are 4.48 tonnes per person per year. Cutting the world total by 85% means reducing this to 0.672t. Average per capita output in the 38 Annex 1 countries is 9.98 tonnes: to hit this target they must cut their emissions by 93.3% by 2050. If the rich persist in offsetting 50% of this cut, the poorer countries would have to reduce their emissions by 6989mt to absorb our offsets. To meet a global average of 0.672t, they would also need to chop their own output by a further 10838mt. This means a total cut of 17827mt, or 125% of their current emissions. I hope you have spotted the flaw.

  21. It may be worth checking how the per capita figures presented in the graph at the beginning of this article handle Scope 3 (indirect) emissions.

    There is a growing realisation that per capita figures for consuming nations are probably under reporting the embodied energy / carbon content of finished goods and products, whilst those of producing nations may be over-reporting values. For the latter, emissions do not simply represent a growing standard of living, but also the energy expended in manufacturing goods that subsequently will be exported. If this analysis is correct, then per capita emissions (at the point of consumption, rather than the point of production) for countries such as Canada will be even higher than your graph suggests and correspondingly, figures for China will be lower.

    There is also an interesting page in Wikipedia that lists countries andcarbon dioxide emissions per capita. Qatar tops the list probably because of the large quantities of carbon dioxide emitted by its power generation and hydrocarbon processing plants.

  22. Robin,

    You are right to suggest that many emissions occurring in one jurisdiction can be thought of as being ‘for the benefit’ of people somewhere else.

    David MacKay mentions emissions ’embedded’ in imports in his free book:

    “Dieter Helm and his colleagues in Oxford estimate that under a correct account, allowing for imports and exports, Britain’s carbon footprint is nearly doubled from the official “11 tons CO2e per person” to about 21 tons. This implies that the biggest item in the average British person’s energy footprint is the energy cost of making imported stuff.”

    Arguably, this makes the development of global climate change policies that are both effective and equitable even more challenging.

  23. Milan,

    The shame of it is that carbon dioxide is colourless, otherwise we might all have a much greater awareness of how much is generated in manufacturing the products and providing the services that contribute to our per capita emissions.

    In the absence of a visual guide that would appeal more directly to our emotions and sense of fair play, we probably will have to rely on a more scientific approach – typically a good method for calculating our Scope 1 (direct), Scope 2 (indirect purchased power) and Scope 3 (other indirect ) emissions in line with definitions developed by the GHG Protocol Initiative. Trouble is, user friendly web based carbon footprint calculation sites don’t handle Scope 3 (manufactured products and provision of services) emissions very well if at all, whilst companies who would have more resources to develop estimates, have no requirement in law to consider indirect emissions because these are owned and controlled by other entities (which is probably why the GHG Protocol developed the definitions it did).

    The best methodology to date is probably that published by the British Standards Institute, PAS 2050:2008. However, this is not a document that Joe Public can use to quickly calculate his per capita emission. Nor is it a document that can yet be used to cacluate the carbon footprint of machinery or equipment (s0 called capital goods), but this is being worked on and in time should generate / validate the kind of numbers that Professor Helm has identified in his papers.

  24. One partial solution might be carbon tariffs, based on the number of tonnes of embedded emissions in imports.

    If the importer had to pay an amount equivalent to the carbon price established by a domestic carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, consumers in the importing state would be made to take the associated emissions into account, economically.

    It would also eliminate the incentive to shift production from regulated to unregulated states.

  25. China will not allow its carbon dioxide emissions per person to reach levels seen in the US, according to the minister in charge of climate policy.

    Xie Zhenhua, vice chair of the National Development and Reform Commission, said that to let emissions rise that high would be a “disaster for the world”.

    Chinese per-capita emissions may reach US levels by 2017, a recent study said.

    Mr Xie was speaking during a visit to the UK that explored co-operation on clean energy and climate issues.

    It included signing a Memorandum of Understanding with UK Energy and Climate Secretary Chris Huhne on areas for joint research.

  26. Weaver and Swart set out to answer a simple question: “How much global warming would occur if we completely burned a variety of fossil fuel resources?” Their conclusion that burning all the coal or all the gas from the entire world’s resource bases would raise global average temperatures more than burning all the Alberta tar sands reserves is hardly a surprise.

    What is surprising is their finding that emissions from burning all the economically viable oil from the tar sands would only contribute to a 0.03°C rise in world temperatures, and burning the entire tar sands oil in place would add 0.36° C. That may not seem like much, but we need to put it in context.

    First, the study looked only at the emissions from burning the fuels and not from extracting, refining, or transporting them. The report’s authors explain that these additional emissions “would come from the other resource pools and shouldn’t be double-counted.”

    If we are to avoid a 2° C increase in global temperatures, each person in the world would be allocated 80 tonnes of emissions over the next 50 years. The emissions from burning all the tar sands oil that is now economically viable (the reserves) would represent 64 tonnes of carbon for each of the 340 million people in the U.S. and Canada—about 75 pe cent of the U.S. and Canada’s global per capita allocation. If we include emissions from the extraction process, it rises to 90 per cent or more.

    The study doesn’t consider any other environmental consequences of the tar sands either, from water use and pollution to destruction of boreal habitat. In fact, a recently uncovered memo prepared for the federal government claims that damage from the tar sands may be irreversible and could pose a “significant environmental and financial risk to the province of Alberta.” The memo focused on rising emissions and damage from tailings ponds, among other effects. It concluded that “the cumulative impacts of oilsands development are not adequately understood.”

    Our rush to get at the bitumen is also threatening wildlife and habitat. Conservation officers killed 145 black bears that got too close to the operations last year. And rather than protecting caribou habitat from destruction as extraction increases, the federal government has decided to kill wolves that prey on caribou instead.

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