We – the human race – currently pump 40 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere each year. We know that this so-called ‘greenhouse gas’ is rapidly changing the weather patterns on our planet. This 40 gigatonnes worth of gas a year mostly comes from burning coal, oil and gas, although clearing forests, agriculture and producing cement also have big roles. These gases have built up in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, and especially over the past 50 years, and we need to do something about it if we are to continue to enjoy a relatively stable global climate.
To this end, the Paris Climate agreement, signed in 2016 by every government in the world, agreed to limit the amount of warming to 1.5 degrees celsius above the average of 1990 global temperatures. But what does this figure mean to us in our day to day lives? It probably makes sense to break down what it means for each of us.
We know that the 40 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas which is causing the problem comes from human activity. So if we divide the total by the number of people currently on the planet (6.5bn men, women and children) we get a global average of 6 tonnes of greenhouse gas.
The latest range target emissions produced by the InterGovernmental Panel on Climate Change put the target global emissions at 25 gigatonnes per person by 2030. Which would give an average of 4 tonnes per person. However, the world population will have increased by 2 billion people in 2030, so we need to take account of that too. So, we arrive with three tonnes of greenhouse gas for every person on the planet if we want to have a realistic chance of limiting the worst effects of climate change. So in conclusion, three tonnes of greenhouse gas is the amount of greenhouse gas that each and every man woman and child can put into the atmosphere each year to beat climate change.
Possible? Not Possible?
At a first glance, that may look impossible. The average carbon footprint in the UK is around 14 tonnes per person per year. If you are lucky enough to be wealthy it could easily be double or three times that. However, this is the other point about a three tonne footprint: I believe it to be very achievable. My carbon footprint is currently around 5 tonnes per year, and that is with a car, some foreign holidays, meat and dairy in my diet, and lots of other things that the ‘green handbook’ would say were wrong! The total also includes two tonnes of government infrastructure activity, which, whilst essential to our modern and privileged lifestyles, is also very high and could quite easily be significantly reduced if the political will existed.