Beth Kayser

Per capita CO2 emissions: why your personal carbon footprint matters

3 min Read
Chess pawns against a white background

One of the most common arguments you’ll hear in a debate about climate change (in relation to the UK) is that our carbon footprint doesn’t even touch that of big hitters like China or India, and thus there’s no point in changing until they do. We believe this is shortsighted; most high-income countries (like us) have above average per capita CO2 emissions. In other words, per person, we’re responsible for more than our fair share of greenhouse gases.

By making small lifestyle changes you’ll not only reduce your own carbon footprint but also have knock-on effects across the UK and even globally.  

How global carbon footprints compare

It’s important to clarify that the first half of that argument is absolutely true; the UK’s carbon footprint is small in comparison to China’s or India’s. In 2017 the UK’s emissions accounted for 1% of total global emissions. China accounted for 27% and India 7% (Our World in Data).

To quickly nip the ‘East vs West’ argument in the bud, the USA accounted for 15%.  

How small changes make a big difference

The second half of the argument- ‘there’s no point in changing until they do’—is countered from three perspectives...

  1. Looking at the UK’s per capita emissions (how much an individual’s carbon footprint is), we see that each of us is responsible for more than the global average. And that’s with an energy network that’s comparably quite green (many other countries are more reliant on fossil fuels, which drives their per capita emissions up). Relative to our population share, the UK is actually over emitting CO2. India is not. So, when it comes to how much difference an individual can make to their carbon footprint, we in the UK have more to play with in our everyday lives.
  2. China and India’s emissions are high, certainly. But in a globalised economy, can we point the finger without also turning it on ourselves? How many items in your home were ‘made in China’?  It would be interesting to see what would happen to China’s emissions if everyone in the ‘western’ world changed their buying habits to be more localised and eco-friendly.
  3. Often, this debate morphs into or runs alongside the ‘it’s up to governments and big businesses to take the lead’ argument. And we get that. We should be able to rely on these institutions to make the necessary changes. But pointing fingers and waiting for someone else to do something isn’t productive; businesses and governments will follow the will of the people, eventually. Our actions and buying behaviour are therefore powerful because at scale they are trends. And trends send a clear message about what we do/don’t want. Making small changes in your lifestyle and buying behaviour not only makes a difference to your personal carbon footprint, it also feeds into effecting change at a more influential level.

Lastly, when answering the question ‘why us?’ consider this: the UK is recognised as one of the most influential countries in the world. So why not us?

Let’s ditch the finger-pointing club and take a lead, together.

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