Why "per capita emissions" is a bad frame for the climate debate
It nudges us toward ideas that actively hurt the fight against climate change.
Whenever I point out that China emits a heck of a lot of carbon — and will thus be crucial to the effort to stop climate change — a bunch of people pop up to tell me to think about per capita emissions. A couple examples:
It certainly is an important distinction. Here are total carbon-emissions by region, adjusted for trade (which takes care of outsourcing of manufacturing and all that jazz):
China is the biggest total emitter by far. But when you look at per capita emissions, the U.S. stands out relative to other major regions:
The folks I quoted above are people I like and respect, not bad-faith leftists who just want to dunk on the United States (though there are plenty of those around too). So I should take their concerns seriously. Nevertheless, I think that focusing on comparing countries’ per capita emissions makes the climate debate worse in a number of ways.
“Per capita” focuses us on marginal decarbonization instead of deep decarbonization
First, the blunt fact of climate change is that in order to save the world from extremely damaging effects, we can’t just partially decarbonize; we have to completely decarbonize. That means that global emissions have to come down to net zero. We can’t just have them come down part of the way.
Global net zero means that all countries’ total emissions have to come down to net zero. It also means that all countries’ per capita emissions have to come down to net zero. Because when you’re at zero, total equals per capita; they’re both just zero.
That’s what needs to happen. And that is what countries around the world, including both the U.S. and China, are pledging to do. Making pledges is not the same as living up to those pledges, but it’s still good to see all these countries acknowledging that they need to decarbonize completely.
Thinking about “per capita”, however, moves us away from thinking about this essential truth. Supporters of “per capita” thinking believe that it’s a measure of how much “slack” their is in a country’s economy — in other words, of how much emissions can be easily cut from that country’s economy.
But thinking about how much we can easily cut is marginal thinking. It’s saying “OK, first let’s cut a little bit, and then we’ll see.” But we are well past the point of being able to cut just a little bit. Maybe in the 90s we still had time to get away with that sort of incrementalism, but that ship has sailed. We are already suffering massive flooding, rampant wildfires, and other major effects of climate change. If we want to have any hope of averting even more catastrophic effects, we are going to have to get to global net zero in a matter of a few decades.
All countries have to get to zero at maximum speed, not just cut the “slack”. This means the U.S. and China both need to cut their capita emissions by 100%. And it means the U.S. and China both need to cut their total emissions by 100%.
“Per capita” frames decarbonization as a sacrifice instead of an opportunity
The imminence of climate change is the bad news. But there’s also some very good news: Rapid progress in renewable technology has made rapid deep decarbonization feasible instead of a pipe dream. This means that decarbonizing the economy is no longer a matter of making economic sacrifices; instead, it’s an economic opportunity.
I urge everyone to read this post from the Institute for New Economic Thinking about recent research into the feasibility of decarbonization, as well as the paper the post is based on. The upshot:
[F]ears that…a transition [to green energy] would be costly and harm the economy have held back progress. However, a study published in Joule today shows the reverse: an ambitious, decisive transition to green energy technologies such as solar, wind, and batteries, will likely save the world significant sums of money…
The research shows a win-win-win scenario, in which a transition to nearly 100% clean energy by 2050 results in lower energy system costs than a fossil fuel system, while providing more energy to the global economy, and expanding energy access to more people around the world. This result is based purely on the economics of different energy technologies, even without accounting for the costs of climate damages and climate adaptation that would be avoided by such an energy transition…
"There is a pervasive misconception that switching to clean, green energy will be painful, costly and mean sacrifices for us all – but that’s just wrong," says Professor Doyne Farmer…"Completely replacing fossil fuels with clean energy by 2050 will save us trillions."
The idea of focusing on per capita emissions is that morally, a high per-capita emitter like the U.S. ought to make more sacrifices in the fight against climate change than a medium per-capita emitter like China. This is also why some people talk about cumulative emissions and historical responsibility.
But framing climate change in terms of blame and responsibility implies that decarbonization requires sacrifice. That’s a way of thinking that’s stuck decades in the past. Continuing to talk about climate change in terms of sacrifice is actively bad for the planet, because it makes people afraid that switching to renewables will make them poorer instead of richer. And the fear that renewables will make society poorer will make both developed and developing countries less willing to support government action to speed up the transition.
In other words, “per capita” thinking pushes us toward counterproductive degrowth thinking.
Update: In this discussion, a lot of people talk about poor countries having a right to develop. This is absolutely true; they DO have a right to develop, and indeed this is an urgent task! But this doesn’t mean poor countries need to develop using the exact same fossil fuel energy sources that today’s rich countries used for their own development a century ago. The progress in renewables means that poor countries will now be able to develop faster with renewables than with fossil fuels. For poor countries, as for rich ones, decarbonization is an opportunity rather than a sacrifice. India already sees this, and is reducing coal in favor of solar power. Rich countries can help by providing lots of development funding (aid, loans, and FDI) for investment in renewables.
“Per capita” makes us think about lifestyles rather than about government policy
I suspect that the obsession with sacrifice when talking about climate change is not simply due to ignorance about the progress in renewables. I suspect that part of this “sacrifice” discourse is due to our inherent desire to see public policy issues in moral terms. Carbon emission is a sin, climate change is divine punishment, and we must repent and flagellate ourselves in proportion to the amount of sin each of us has committed.
This was a point that Paul Krugman made very well back in the Great Recession, when some people were advocating for hard money and fiscal austerity. Economics, Krugman argued, is not a morality play; instead of thinking in terms of sin and punishment and blame, we should think in terms of effective policy to improve life for everyone. And so it is with climate change.
You can see the idea of climate-change-as-individual-sin in the way that some activists focus relentlessly on lifestyles. The charity Oxfam created a viral chart purporting to show that most climate change is caused by the “lifestyle consumption emissions” of the world’s richest people. Like many Oxfam statistics, this was bunk, but its popularity shows that there’s an appetite for the idea that we could solve climate change if only rich gluttonous Americans would stop driving their giant SUVs and whatnot. There was a time a few years ago when some climate activists on Twitter would mob and shame random people who admitted to using air travel.
Needless to say, this did not work. But more fundamentally, personal voluntary lifestyle consumption changes are simply not going to be a big part of the solution to climate change. One reason is the free rider problem — people who piously avoid air travel and cars and eat locally grown vegan diets etc. etc. will curb their own consumption, but this will make airfares and gasoline and beef cheaper for those who don’t care about climate change, and they will consume more, which will cancel out some substantial portion of the benefit. Another reason is that even the most climate-conscious people are, in general, willing to forego only a modest fraction of their consumption, whereas solving climate change requires rapid deep decarbonization of the entire global economy. A third reason is that countries that emit most of the world’s carbon — from China to the super-high per capita emitters of the Middle East — are also unlikely to adopt the kind of lifestyle changes pushed by Western liberals.
What we need for deep rapid global decarbonization is not personal abstemiousness, but government policy. Governments must use a combination of rules and incentives to spur a faster transition to renewables, and they must invest in the infrastructure to spread renewable use quickly. Accelerating the transition will benefit governments, due to renewables delivering cheap energy. But it will require overcoming politically powerful incumbent industries who want to force society to stick with dirty, expensive fossil fuels for a little while longer — the biggest obstacles being U.S. oil industry and the Chinese coal industry. Overcoming these political barriers should be the key task of climate activism — not heckling people to stop flying.
A focus on “per capita” thinking, therefore, pushes us toward the mistaken idea that climate change is a problem we can solve with personal responsibility instead of government action. That may satisfy our inner Puritans, but it’s not helpful in terms of actually saving the planet.
Anyway, to sum up, there are a whole lot of reasons why I think focusing on “per capita” emissions pushes us toward outdated and misguided climate ideas. There is a real path to saving the planet — using simultaneous government policies to accelerate the transition to cheap renewables in all countries at once, in order to achieve global net zero emissions in half a century. Pointing fingers, assigning blame, allocating sacrifices, and curbing lifestyles are just not helpful ways of putting us on that path.
Good news on this front, the world reached peak per capital emissions about a decade ago