We’ve already outlined some of the ways that individuals might be able to decrease their own personal carbon footprint.
But, in this guide we explore what a sustainable carbon footprint might be to aim for so people have a target or goal in mind to think about.
Let’s take a look.
Summary – Sustainable Carbon Footprint To Aim For For Individuals
Current estimates for a suitable carbon footprint per person might range from 2 to 3 tons CO2e per person (to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees)
To put this into context, the global average is 4.5 tons (per person, per year), and the U.S. average per person is 17.5 tons a person per year. Different countries can vary higher or lower than the global average per capita
The way to work out a sustainable carbon footprint for an individual might be to figure out a global or country specific carbon target, and work backwards from there
If there is a carbon target (in terms of total tons of CO2e) in place to limit warming to say 1.5 or 2 degrees (above pre industrial levels), then that target total can be divided by population size to get a carbon target per person. This takes into account population growth and shrinkage in the future
This approach may have some validity and practicality, as it keeps countries who might over-consume or have higher per capita emission rates accountable
There are limitations to this approach too though – it’s very simplistic and one dimensional
A few examples are that carbon targets are not perfect target numbers and they can change as different variables change, different countries have different economies and their sectors/industries might function differently, it can be very difficult to keep track of direct and indirect emissions, and there’s also producer vs consumer emission footprints to take into consideration
Carbon sinks and future carbon sequestration may also have to be taken into account
What Might Be A Sustainable Carbon Footprint To Aim For Per Person, & Why?
- 3 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person per year
- [the reason for this is] … At the average individual rate of 3 tons, yearly total global carbon dioxide emissions would be 21 gigatons.
- That’s equal to the global natural carbon sinks in the ocean, soil, biomass that keeps the amount of global carbon dioxide in the atmosphere level.
Ourworld.unu.edu also mentions:
- Trying to limit rising global temperatures to 1.5°C … means cutting CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050.
- This means that per person per year we would have to live a 3-tonne lifestyle
- Assuming a global population around 9-10 billion by 2050, a carbon footprint of about 2 – 2.5 tons CO2e per capita (per person) is needed to stay within a 2 °C target (set by the Paris Agreement)
But ideally, if you read climate forecasts for the future (especially reports that discuss temperature targets of around 2 to 3 degrees celsius above pre industrial level), bringing carbon footprint as low as possible is ideal to minimise the effects and risks of greenhouse gases and climate warming as much as possible.
What Is The Current Average For Carbon Footprint Per Person Per Year – Globally, & By Country?
Some countries have far higher per capita carbon footprints than the global average.
Carbon footprints globally, and from major countries:
- … the global average is 4.5 tons (per person, per year)
- … the U.S. average per person is 17.5 tons a person per year
- … China is 6.4 tons a person per year.
- Each Australian and American has an average footprint of almost 30 tonnes of CO2e per year
- The current global average (footprint per person) is more like 4-tonnes
- Trying to limit rising global temperatures to 1.5°C, means cutting CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050.
- This means that per person per year we would have to live a 3-tonne lifestyle.
- The global average carbon footprint in 2007 was around 5.7 tons CO2e/cap.
- The EU average for this time was about 13.8 tons CO2e/cap,
- The U.S., Luxembourg and Australia it was over 25 tons CO2e/cap.
- The footprints per capita of countries in Africa and India were well below average.
To set these numbers into context, assuming a global population around 9-10 billion by 2050 a carbon footprint of about 2 – 2.5 tons CO2e per capita is needed to stay within a 2 °C target.
We’ve previously outlined the countries that emit the most greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide in this guide.
How We Might Decrease Carbon Footprints On Global, & National Level?
We’ve previously outlined the industries that are responsible for emitting the most greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide.
From those findings, changes in the following areas of society in developed countries might bring about large decreases in the average carbon footprint:
Energy Production – converting to renewable energy (like solar, wind, water etc.), or at least increasing their use as a supplementary power source to the current coal and gas power production. Increasing energy efficiency while not increasing total energy use is another option
Transport – increasing the use of electric and hybrid vehicles which utilise renewable or sustainable energy like electricity and hydrogen. And, slowly decreasing the use of fossil fuel based cars. Total number of vehicles and total miles driven are also metrics worth taking account of
Agriculture – less use of of pesticides, fertilizers and particularly livestock based agriculture. More focus on plant based agriculture and incorporation of organic and sustainable farming practices to complement intensive farming practices
Land Use & Deforestation – less clearing of forests and land. Less land conversion for farming. Create carbon sinks for carbon sequestration e.g. plant more trees and plant life
Commercial & Residential – more sustainable energy and construction systems and materials are used on homes and dwellings and business buildings
Industry/Business – factories and industry type buildings use more efficient and sustainable systems to operate
Developing countries might focus on learning from the mistakes of developed countries and build sustainable and renewable systems as soon as possible.
As an example of how current systems are weighing developed nations down, consider the carbon footprint of coal power plants in the US at the moment:
- … the US coal generating plant “fleet” of 1,309 plants with a capacity of 343,757 megawatts produces 1.6 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity a year.
- This amounts to 5.32 tons of carbon per American per year all by itself.
- This represents 177% of the U.S sustainable carbon allowance.
To be fair though – the US has made a significant effort to transition to natural gas over the last few decades, and it’s slowly taking up a bigger % share of the US’ energy mix.
How To Assess, & Lower Your Own Carbon Footprint
Look at several carbon footprint calculators online, and look at all the factors of your life that have a carbon footprint to them (according to the different calculators)
Estimate your carbon footprint with a few different online carbon footprint calculators to get an idea of you average
Make steps in your life to adjust your footprint based on the different factors
Educate others on how to lower their carbon footprint based on what you’ve found
One of the biggest ways you can slash your carbon footprint is with the food you buy and eat. Two general rules might be:
- Focus on more plant based foods as opposed to meat and dairy and animal based food products. Even switching meats from say beef to chicken might be beneficial
- Don’t waste food – wasted food that you throw out has a carbon footprint too
Consider this from ourworld.unu.edu:
- … the food we buy can add up to 20% of our carbon footprint.
- And this is just at first glance, because if we count up the related damage of deforestation from big agriculture, this brings the impact up to 30%.
Further Resources On Lowering Your Personal Carbon Footprint
There are high, moderate and low impact actions to consider, as well as considering the carbon footprint of the products and things we use on an everyday basis.