The fight against climate change is essentially a collective action problem. My individual actions will make no difference if everyone maintains their current lifestyle and behaviors; but if each of us waits for others to change, no one will ever do it, and we will make no progress. Climate change is such an overwhelming problem—arguably the greatest of our time affecting all areas of life—that it is easy to get discouraged given the magnitude of the challenge.
That’s why we need to personalize climate change in a way that makes it clear that we all have a role to play and quantify our actions, so that we are empowered to act. In this blog, we try to describe the quantitative parameters to break down the problem.
The starting question: How much do we emit?
The question seems simple, but the answer is not obvious. Where and how we live makes a huge difference in the size of our climate footprint.
In 2022, the world’s population is expected to release approximately 58 gigatonnes (GT) of greenhouse gas emissions (including all forms of emissions—CO2 as well as non-CO2 gases such as methane). One GT equals 1 billion tonnes. If we divide 58 GT by 7.85 billion people, we get 7.4 tonnes per person per year, which is the climate footprint of the average global citizen.
In a Western economy, it is currently hardly possible to be climate neutral, i.e. to have net zero emissions. Even with someone who drives an electric car (or no car at all), doesn’t fly, and doesn’t eat meat, there will still be significant emissions. If that person lives and works in a building, showers several times a week, and uses public transport, emissions occur in ways we don’t usually think of: the cement industry (for the material used to build a building), the chemical industry (which produces soap and shampoo), or the steel industry (which provided the material for public buses and trains).
Broadly speaking, there are five main drivers of our emissions. Here’s how they add up to the average 7.4 tonnes that a typical global citizen emits:
- Electricity (2.7 tons). More than a third of global emissions are caused by energy production, mainly in the form of electricity. Coal is responsible for more than half of all electricity-related emissions.
- Industry (1.8 tons). This includes the manufacture of everyday products such as toiletries and newspapers, cement durable goods, or metals used in buildings.
- Transportation (1.1 tons). Truck transport—cars, buses and trucks—causes the largest share of emissions in this sector, about 0.8 tonnes per person. The rest comes from ships, planes and railways.
- Agriculture (1.5 tons). Food production is responsible for around 10% of global emissions, with meat production contributing the largest share, at 0.46 tonnes per person. Land conversion currently adds 0.7 tonnes per person, but could be an important driver of emissions reductions in the future through afforestation and reforestation, for example.
- Buildings (0.4 tons). Apart from construction alone, buildings also need to be heated and cooled, resulting in additional and ongoing emissions.
People in rich countries emit more than people in poor countries. However, there are also significant differences between countries with similar incomes. For example, an average French person emits four times less than an average Australian (see Figure 1 below). Among the G-20 economies, the largest emitters per capita are Australia (26 tons), Saudi Arabia (25 tons), Canada (24 tons), the United States (19 tons) and Russia (16 tons). China, Germany and South Africa emit significantly more than the world average, while a number of European economies, as well as Mexico and India, emit slightly less than the world average.
Figure 1. The average Australian emits about 8 times more than their Indian counterpart
Source: Global Data Laboratory projections based on data from Minx et al 2021.
The next question is:
Can we create a world with net zero emissions while maintaining strong economic growth so that everyone can thrive and prosper?
As pointed out by many Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and leading climate researchers, bringing the world to a net-zero emissions trajectory will be extremely difficult, as it would require profound changes in our economic system and individual behavior. Even under conservative projections, the world population is expected to reach around 9 billion people by 2050. On average, the standard of living will be higher in the future than today. This is good news for the fight against poverty, but potentially bad news for the climate—unless we make fundamental changes in the way economies are organised.
So, back to our original riddle: How do we start making changes?
An important starting point is to generate better and more actionable data that allows each of us to link individual and collective actions and choices to tangible results. You might be wondering how data alone can help, so let us illustrate.
First, to prioritize action, we need to understand the main drivers of global emissions in order to understand the importance of key sectors and specific countries. We also need to better understand where emissions continue to rise and where they fall (around 40 countries have already started to reduce their climate footprint, although most are starting from too high a level).
Second, new technologies and better data can be harnessed to address specific emission sources. For example, the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch developed a sophisticated data model to monitor and respond to wildfires in Indonesia in real time, demonstrating the capability of actionable mitigation and response scenarios.
Third, better data can help us better manage logistics. Today, many resources are wasted because we produce, transport and store products very inefficiently (to places where they will not be needed or well in advance). Imagine the resources that could be saved if we could produce, transport, cool or heat consumer products exactly where and when they are needed. This “just in time” production—originally led by Toyota—makes sense for business and protect our climate.
Providing better climate data that can be used in practice to change our vision and action is the fundamental ambition driving the development of the Global Emissions Clock.. We look forward to featuring it in an upcoming episode of our blog.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Cecile Schneider (GIZ) for her valuable contributions. GIZ supports the World Data Lab, together with IIASA and other scientific partners, in the development of the World Emissions Clock as part of the German G-7 Presidency. Any questions about the data model should be directed to [email protected]