Comparing CO2 emissions per capita: living a full year in the US, Germany, China, India – or booking 4 random flights from London Heathrow

All right. What we’re gonna do today is hardly science. But it is based on decent World Bank statistics for China, India, Germany and the US (which sadly have not yet been updated since 2011) and a CO2 calculator that seems pretty reliable, to get a sense of the cumulative CO2 emissions for just four flights from London Heathrow.

Firstly though it is a good thing to understand what ‘CO2 emissions per capita’ actually mean. You’re mistaken to think that is the emissions from your direct energy consumption only – it also includes your ‘fair share’ of non-personal emitters in your country – like heavy industry, transport sector and agriculture.

It however does not include aviation emissions. You see these Boeings flying overhead? None of them are counted – not in your country, not in any country. That is because airplanes often land in a different country than the one they take off from, and countries as you know can be really childish when it comes to splitting burdens.

Graph of CO2 emissions per capita, plus flying
‘Officially’ aviation emissions are not counted in national emissions – and therefore flying behaviour is also not represented in the first 4 bars of this graph, that compare CO2 emissions per capita (direct + indirect) for the United States, Germany, China and India.

To first try and compare the differences between these four countries, we see that when you are rich you are probably consumptive and therefore emit a lot of CO2 (United States). You can be equally rich and productive and emit only half the CO2 per capita (Germany) if you opt for greener lifestyle options (walk for those groceries, come on – small things do count!) and especially when your government decides to lead in renewable energy sources. China has an upcoming middle class, so consumption is on the rise, but their above average CO2 emissions per capita are considerably smaller than that of any western industrialised nation – whereas a big chunk of their emissions is also caused by the production of stuff that rich western countries consume.

The difference in CO2 emissions per capita for China and India is also remarkable. India sets an example with a population that consumes very little and – this is really quite relevant – lives on a predominantly vegan diet. (Emissions from India are a grave concern nonetheless, because so many people live there – and both population and production/consumption are very much on the rise.)

All right, let’s get to air travel. The four flights we chose are listed below:

The fifth bar in the graph represents the combined CO2 emissions for 4 return flights from London Heathrow, one to Bangkok (via Singapore – economy class), one to New York JFK (via Frankfurt, first class), one from Heathrow via Schiphol Amsterdam to Buenos Aires (business class) and a fourth, straight from London to Athens (also business class).*

[*) We used the carbon calculator of – which we think is as good as an estimate can get. Here you can read more about their principles (PDF)]

Together these 4 flights amount to 23.4 tonnes of emitted CO2 – an equal amount to what 14 people in India emit to just work, eat, drink, live & love for an entire year.

Solutions to the climate problem of flying? Let’s at least discuss! #ITryNotToFly

Indeed. Something is wrong. Why don’t we talk about flying more. We’ve seen how its CO2 intensity compares to other means of transportation – and we’ve also seen the explosive growth, from 2.5 billion annual passenger flights, to 3.5 billion just five years later. That’s a growth rate we really cannot sustain.

Somehow flying needs to be curbed. At some point biofuels may play some role, but no one is currently producing them in ways that create a smaller (biosphere) carbon debt than the fossil kerosine it should replace – and the required scale makes concerns about land use competion and deforestation very real.

So we will also have to look at curbing the growth of the entire sector. Flying less instead of flying more. Prices for plane tickets must go up – and the easiest way imaginable is using a very powerful carbon tax. This in turn will only be possible if we hold countries responsible – and include aviation emissions in the UN climate treaty.

This is why we started a small campaign. I Try Not To Fly. It’s a personal statement – with an important political message: (1) include aviation emissions in the UN climate treaty – thereby (2) force countries to take national responsibility over this issue, and (3) implement an aviation carbon tax. It’s a job that needs to be done. Please join – and please invite your friends! All help is welcome..!

Attempt at an infographic - flying, aviation, CO2 emissions per capita
Very simple infographic to help get a sense of scale about ‘per capita CO2 emissions’. Click here for high-res image (1.6MB). Don’t forget to take a look at the big differences in the first four bars. When you really have to be rich, please at least be green. But the world would be much better if everyone would just consume as little as our dear friends in India, who emit just 1.7 tonnes of CO2 per year per person, on average. When it comes to ‘lifestyle’ – just Try Not To Fly.

© Rolf Schuttenhelm | 

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