Our Incredibly Shrinking Carbon Footprint

Photo: Mohammed Awwam/Unsplash

Photo: Mohammed Awwam/Unsplash

This past week, activists from ages nine to 92 have called for urgent action to address climate change and the devastation of our planet’s ecosystems.  Students took to the streets in 72 countries in another wave of “School Strike for Climate” demonstrations and Sir David Attenborough, the 92-year-old conservationist, warned IMF economic policy makers that we must make drastic changes to avert the complete destruction of the environment.

“We are in terrible, terrible trouble and the longer we wait to do something about it, the worse it is going to get,” Attenborough told the IMF in Washington.

Adding further weight to the argument, comes a new study providing an alarming perspective on the scale and urgency of the problem and the degree of change required to address it.  The study, by Carbon Brief carbonbrief.org, shows that children born today will have to live within a carbon footprint up to 90% smaller than the footprint of their grandparents if we are to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5C.

Carbon Brief has constructed models that measure the lifetime carbon footprint of an individual based on age and location, and they plot the shrinking footprints necessary to contain global warming in the years ahead.  You can link to their calculator embedded in the article below to check your lifetime carbon footprint https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-why-children-must-emit-eight-times-less-co2-than-their-grandparents. The models are based on work by Oxford University’s Sustainable Finance Programme.  

The Study Highlights Three Critical Issues 

  1. The scale and urgency of the corrective action required.  If we think that slowing global warming is difficult now, it will be eight to 10 times harder for children born today. The scale of action required to slow it down has been compared to wartime mobilization.  For those of us fortunate enough to have been spared this experience i.e., most of us, ask a grandparent what it was like to live through World War Two (1939-1945).  We have little idea of the kind of fundamental economic, social and political transformation required to tackle such a mammoth task.

  2. The inequity between current and future generations.  A huge part of the challenge, according to the study, is that the emissions “budget” that would have allowed us to stay within the Paris goals has already been used up by previous and current generations.  So, children born today will need to live very differently to stay within a carbon budget that is small fraction (one-eighth to one- tenth) of that which the average citizen in a wealthy industrialized country expends today. And, even if we take immediate steps, this has to be done in a very small window of time.  No wonder students are demonstrating in the streets.

  3. The inequality between the developed and the developing world.  The Carbon Brief study shows the average annual CO2 emission for an American is 16.9 tonnes compared with 1.9 tonnes for someone living in India. This means emissions reductions need to be much higher in the US than in a developing nation such as India. It is a cruel twist of fate that people in the developing world, who are least responsible for the amount of GHGs that have produced this crisis, are the most likely to be impacted first — experiencing rising sea levels, water scarcity, crop failures due to drought, and cities made unlivable by extreme heat.  David Attenborough warns that as global temperatures rise, large swaths of land or even countries will become uninhabitable, triggering mass, climate-induced migrations.

Photo: Wilco Van Meppelen/Unsplash

Photo: Wilco Van Meppelen/Unsplash

The Carbon Brief study also shows two different future scenarios: one that preserves the current emission differences between economic systems, and a second that assumes an equal sharing of future carbon footprint budgets.  The latter is more equitable and would require citizens of industrialized countries to make even larger cuts to their carbon footprints going forward.

So How Do We Tackle This?

Attenborough called on IMF policy makers to invest in enterprises “that help, not hurt” the situation.   “We are subsidizing the very things that are damaging the planet.” And he urged governments to take action and stop subsidies for fossil fuels.

While we must urge political leaders to make policy changes we, as individuals, must also take actions that don’t depend on reluctant politicians unwilling or unable to challenge the status quo and vested interests.

All of us can reduce our carbon footprint.  While most people have some idea of how to do this for transportation or heating, we are less aware of the carbon footprint of our food choices.  There is a useful calculator at https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46459714 that helps familiarize us with the impact of our food choices and shows ways to reduce that impact e.g., by eating less meat and dairy.

Whatever actions we take, these new warnings make them more urgent than ever.  And if the challenge seems daunting and overwhelming, know that each of us can make a difference when we are part of a collective of hundreds of thousands or millions even. We can change the system. Just ask the students of School Strike for Climate.


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