How will the COP21 carbon emission limits affect our personal consumption decisions?
The recent climate change summit in Paris (COP21) has been hailed as a success, because an agreement has been made between many countries:
Paris COP21 says that by 2050, man-made carbon emissions should be no more than the planet can absorb. So how much carbon can the earth absorb per year at present? And what is the maximum carbon we can generate as individuals (direct and indirect) each year to comply with this ruling?
Gathering the statistics for the earth’s carbon cycle is complicated because the data is presented in different forms:
kg of carbon
kg of CO2
kg of CO2eq (this scales the mass of methane and other greenhouse gases, for their greenhouse gas effect compared to CO2)
The atomic mass of CO2 is 44, while the atomic mass of Carbon is 12. So figures for CO2 mass are 3.67 times higher than those for Carbon mass. I have chosen to present all my data as mass of CO2eq. The units are normally given in Gtonne (Giga tonne = 10^9 tonne) or Pg (Peta gram = 10^15 gram), which are actually the same mass. They are both a trillion (10^12) kg.
Every year the planet naturally generates CO2 (respiration, fires, volcanoes, etc) and absorbs CO2 (photosynthesis, dissolving into the sea, etc). At present the earth generates about 771 Gtonne of CO2eq each year and absorbs about 788 Gtonne of CO2eq each year. So at present the earth can remove about 17 Gtonne of CO2eq per year.
The world population is now about 7.3 billion. To comply with the COP21 ruling, it means that we should not generate more than 2.3 tonne (2300 kg) of CO2eq each per year. If the world population increases to 9.7 billion (as expected by 2050), then we will only be able to generate about 1800 kg CO2eq/person.year. We need to think of this as a personal annual allowance and balance the books, rather like we do with money. Every year our personal CO2eq expenditure must not exceed our allowance.
At present the average annual CO2eq emissions (‘expenditure’) per person is:
Qatar average = 36950 kg CO2eq/person.year
Australia average = 16700 kg CO2eq/person.year
USA average = 16150 kg CO2eq/person.year
Europe average = 9000 kg CO2eq/person.year
UK average = 7180 kg CO2eq/person.year
China average = 6080 kg CO2eq/person.year
World average = 4510 kg CO2eq/person.year
India average = 1580 kg CO2eq/person.year
Africa average = 950 kg CO2eq/person.year
Most of these numbers are well above the 2300 kg or 1800 kg CO2eq/person.year ‘allowance’ that we need to aim for (for 2015 or for 2050).
These emissions figures are for the sum of all direct and indirect CO2 emissions that occur as a result of the things we consume. The direct emissions come from various activities, including:
Gas we use in our home
Electricity we use in our home
Petrol and diesel we burn in our cars
Kerosene burned in the aeroplane flights we take
Fuel burned in the public transport we take
Energy used to produce and transport the products and services we buy
The indirect emissions come from various activities, including:
Gas and electricity used at our work
Energy used to build and run the public infrastructure we use (roads, hospitals, schools, government, law, police, defence, etc)
Energy used to build and run the private infrastructure we use (shops, sports, entertainment, industry, agriculture, fisheries, etc)
It is hard for us as individuals to change the indirect emissions listed above, but we can easily change the direct emissions we generate. To start off, it is useful if we know how much CO2eq we generate for various everyday activities, for example:
Burning 1 litre of petrol or diesel generates about 2.3 kg of CO2 (and produces 9 kWh of energy)
Burning 1 cubic metre of gas generates about 1.8 kg of CO2 (and produces 11 kWh of energy)
A return flight from London to LA generates about 3000 kg of CO2 per passenger!
It is easy to see that flying is the big one! You can calculate more figures for your individual carbon (CO2eq) footprint at:
The media stories from Paris COP21 showed lots of people asking when governments and industry are going to sort out our climate and CO2 emissions issues? There is a danger that we regard this issue as someone else’s problem and not our own. But these emissions come from the demand which we create as individual consumers. We need to be aware of and responsible for the CO2 emissions that will be (or have been) generated when we personally heat something or travel somewhere or buy something.
At present, most of our energy comes from burning coal or oil or gas, all of which generate CO2. We already generate some of our energy from some zero-carbon sources, such as nuclear, hydro, solar and wind, but this is only about 18% (28,500 TWh) of the total energy we generate each year in the world (155,500 TWh). People might hope that zero-carbon energy sources will enable them to meet their individual CO2 target (2300 or 1800 kg CO2eq/person.year) in the future, yet still consume as many goods and services as they do at present, but this is unlikely to be possible !
We need to look at ourselves and be aware of the CO2 emissions generated from our own individual decisions and actions. The world will produce more zero-carbon energy in the future, but it is very unlikely to match our current world energy consumption. So to meet the COP21 target, we will need to reduce our individual consumption levels.
This is a hard message to deliver. People want to have a cleaner planet, but don’t want to change the way they live. People hope that the carbon emissions problem will be solved by changes to the supply side (energy sources) alone. We all need to recognise that this is not possible and that the demand side will need to change too. i.e ‘We’ need to change. We need to consume less!
It’s not about “Them”, it’s about “Us” …
Alistair Morfey, Cambridge Consultants