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Downscaling 2°C to the ‘individual’

By Jim Ormond

In 2012, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) calculated that annual global carbon emissions were 49Gigatonnes CO2e[1] – approximately double the volume emitted in 1970. In order to have a “likely” chance of limiting global temperatures to a maximum 2°C rise, UNEP recommends that global annual emissions be limited to 37Gt by 2030 and 21Gt by 2050 (a 57% reduction from 2012 levels).

Given this ceiling, how can (or should) we allocate the total level of global carbon emissions between different nations, industries and individuals?

Perhaps the simplest (and fairest) way would be on a per capita basis. It is estimated that the world’s population will be 8.5billion in 2035 and 9.5billion in 2050[2]. So in 2035, each individual should emit a maximum of 4.39tCO2e and by 2050 we should be down to 2.2t.

However, if we compare this target with the current carbon footprint for the UK population, which is approximately 15.3tCO2e per person per year[3], the scale of the challenge becomes strikingly apparent. To add some further context, a return flight from London to New York generates approximately 1tCO2e, the production and use of a laptop 0.35t, a pair of jeans 0.032t, whilst a pint of milk 0.009t [4].

And here’s another sobering thought. For the past three years UNEP has published an emissions gap report [5]. Looking at the 2°C climate target, it calculates the gap between the required emission levels in 2020 and the projected emissions levels if every country fulfils its current reduction pledges. In 2010 the ‘gap’ was estimated to be 5GtCO2e, then 6Gt in 2011 and 8Gt in 2012. That’s almost double the total emissions of the world’s cars, buses and trucks in 2005.

With each IPCC report, there is growing certainty surrounding the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions. But the gap between what is being done and what is required to be done to reduce them is getting bigger. Is it not time to stop debating whether we are 90% or 95% certain about climate change and, instead, to take seriously the challenge we are facing, on an individual, corporate and national scale …?

[1] 1 gigatonne CO2e = 1 billion metric tonnes

CO2e = carbon dioxide equivalent. A quantity which describes – for a given mixture and amount of greenhouse gas - the amount of CO2 which would have the same global warming potential. For instance 1 tonnes of methane is equivalent to the emissions of 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide, whilst 1 tonnes of nitrous oxide is equivalent to the emissions of 298 tonnes of carbon dioxide

[2] The UN: 2012 Revision of the World Population Prospects

[3] The Carbon Trust – Personal Carbon Allowances – a white paper

[4] Carbon Neutral Calculator; Dell - Carbon Footprint of a Typical Business Laptop From Dell; Levi - A product life-cycle approach to sustainability; Tesco - Product Carbon Footprint Summary

[5] The Emissions Gap Report 2012 - UNEP

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