The Climate Struggle: Are You Part of the 5 Percent?

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Five percent of the world’s population drives an average of 19 tons per person of global warming pollution into the atmosphere each year due to their consumption patterns. This amounts to over three times the average emissions of the other 95 percent of the global population. An underlying issue at the United Nations climate change negotiations is how the top five percent of carbon emitters can maintain their consumption levels, while preventing the rest of the world from rising to their excessive level of emissions.

I calculated these percentages (see chart below) from the Carbon Footprint of Nations data and analysis compiled by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and originally published in an article in the Proceeding of the National Academies of Sciences and another in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology.

These numbers, commonly known as a carbon footprint, represent the carbon dioxide that each person in a population emits based on consumption. These differ from the national production-based emissions statistics that are most commonly reported. 

The United Nations’ climate convention traditionally has tracked emissions by the global warming pollution associated with a nation’s industrial production, rather than emissions produced by the population’s consumption.

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Why does this consumption vs. production approach matter? Well, take China for example. The population of China is largely part of the 95 percent consumptive emissions group. Although China as a nation has become the worlds largest producer of global warming emissions, it has also become one of the world’s largest exporters. This means that consumers from developed countries are in effect exporting their global warming pollution to China, where high-carbon goods are being produced for developed nation’s consumption. Although China has recently begun to catch up with some developed nations in terms of consumption emissions, on a per-capita basis they remain—with an average emission rate of 4.5 tons of carbon dioxide per capita—well within the lower half of the world population. This exchange of carbon between nations and the inequity inherent in the population disparity between nations is often lost in the climate negotiations.

NOTE: Emissions based on consumption. Data source: calculations based on carbon footprint data calculated by the Carbon Footprint of Nations.

Are you part of the five percent?

Chances are if you are in the U.S., you are part of, or, at least pretty close. Unfortunately, even if you consciously try to curb your personal emissions, economic and infrastructure constraints make it extremely difficult for many working professionals in the U.S. to reduce their emissions to the average per capita emissions of the 95 percent.

Let me give you an example.

My estimated carbon footprint is 13 tons of carbon dioxide per year, which is below the American average, but still super high! I drive a Prius, but due to family and time constraints, I must drive to work and not, say, ride a bike. I have solar panels on my home, which covers most of my household energy consumption except for heating. One big drag on my emissions budget is the international travel I do for work (airplane rides add up!). However, the emissions associated with my household consumption, including food, clothes and technology, accounts for over a third of my emissions. With more of a concerted effort I could probably get my emission down to 10 tons per year, and still lead my daily life. However, that would still be almost twice the average of the 95 percent level. This is quite depressing. But it speaks to why government policies are so critical for setting incentives that shif our society to a low-carbon emission path. Without the policies to drive change in the economy, consumers are left with limited options.  

If Americans don’t like being at the top five percent of global carbon emitters, then we need to push our political leaders to set up incentives and policies to shift our economy off fossil fuels. Today, per capita emissions of the average U.S. citizen is about 19 tons of CO2.  Let’s shoot for 5.5 tons and be part of the 95 percent!

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Dr. Amy Luers is the Director of Climate Change for Skoll Global Threats. She was previously the Senior Environmental Program Manager at Google and led the California Climate Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

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