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Environment: treading lightly on the Earth
Environment: treading lightly on the Earth

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4.1 Carbon reduction targets

The first international agreement to set carbon reduction targets was the 1997 United Nations Kyoto Protocol. This came into force in 2005 and required developed countries to reduce their human-generated GHG emissions by an average of just over 5% on 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. The developing countries that signed up, including India and China, were not required to meet any reduction targets, and the USA never ratified the treaty to make it legally binding. The Kyoto Protocol was a modest first step and known to be inadequate to meet the challenges of climate change.

Since Kyoto, a series of UN climate change conferences have come into force, which have attempted to get international agreements on limiting GHG concentrations in the atmosphere to a ‘safe’ level. This level has been interpreted as the concentration that gives better than a two-thirds chance that the mean global temperature will not rise by more than 2 °C (and ideally no more than 1.5 °C) above pre-industrial levels this century (IPCC, 2015).

A sustainable carbon footprint, likely to avoid the worst effects of climate change (and other adverse environmental impacts), is calculated to be about 2 to 2.5 tonnes CO2 equivalent for every person on the planet. This requires today’s total global GHG emissions to be at the very least halved by 2050 (IPCC, 2015). And for the UK to achieve a sustainable footprint, each inhabitant’s mean consumption-based carbon footprint of 14 to 16 tonnes CO2e per year would have to be reduced by over 80% by 2050 (CCC, 2015). This level of cuts had been anticipated by the authoritative Stern Review (HM Treasury, 2006). Importantly, Stern calculated that the cost of taking the actions to achieve these reductions would be much less than the costs of not doing so; for example, dealing with storms, floods, and food and water shortages.

After very slow progress, the most successful UN climate conference to date was the one held in Paris in December 2015. It agreed on the need for drastic cuts in GHG emissions and was signed by most countries in April 2016.

For its part, the UK Government has exceeded its Kyoto target and in 2008 passed a pioneering Climate Change Act.

Under this Act the Committee on Climate Change was set up to advise the government on carbon budgets and associated emission reduction targets. The Committee recommended a cut of 35% in UK GHG emissions by 2020, 50% by 2025 and 57% by 2030 on the way to a reduction of at least 80% in the nation’s emissions by 2050, all compared to 1990 levels. These targets are legally binding, and by 2016 the UK had already exceeded its 2020 target. But in line with the UN’s Climate Convention, these targets are based on territorial GHG emissions and so don’t include the other half of the UK’s carbon footprint embedded in imports, which you learned about in Sections 1 and 2. Also, the reductions were mainly due to more electricity generated by renewables and less use of coal, while reductions from other sectors such as transport and housing had stalled. And the Paris Agreement would require even greater reductions in the UK’s emissions by 2050 than the current 80% target (CCC, 2016).

What might these targets mean for your individual carbon footprint?

Activity 8 Carbon footprint targets

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

The mean territorial carbon footprint of a UK inhabitant in 1990 was 14.2 tonnes CO2e per person per year (UNFCCC, 2015).

  1. What should be the mean carbon footprint of a UK inhabitant given the following targets?
    • a.The UK Government’s target of a 35% reduction in territorial GHG emissions on 1990 levels by 2020.
    • b.The government’s target of a 50% reduction by 2025.
    • c.The government’s target of an 80% reduction by 2050.
  2. On a consumption basis, including imports and exports, the 1990 UK footprint was approximately 15.7 tonnes CO2e per person per year (CCC, 2013). What would be the footprints for the above reduction targets?

Spend 10–20 minutes on this first part of the activity before looking at the discussion below. See Percentages and parts per million (ppm) in Section 1 for how to calculate percentage reductions.

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  1. Considering only territorial emissions:
    • a.By 2020 the mean UK footprint should have fallen to 100% – 35% = 65% of the 1990 figure of 14.2 tonnes, namely 65/100 × 14.2 = 9.2 tonnes CO2e per person per year (rounded to one decimal place).
    • b.By 2025 the mean UK footprint should have fallen to 100% – 50% = 50% of the 1990 figure of 14.2 tonnes, namely 50/100 × 14.2 = 7.1 tonnes CO2e per person per year.
    • c.By 2050 the mean UK footprint should have fallen to 100% – 80% = 20% of the 1990 figure of 14.2 tonnes, namely 20/100 × 14.2 = 2.8 tonnes CO2 equivalent per person per year (rounded, i.e. near to the sustainable level).
  2. Considering consumption emissions, including imports and exports:
    • a.By 2020 the mean UK footprint should have fallen to 0.65 × 15.7 = approx. 10 tonnes CO2e per person per year (rounded).
    • b.By 2025: 0.5 × 15.7 = approx. 8 tonnes CO2e per person per year.
    • c.By 2050: 0.2 × 15.7 = approx. 3 tonnes CO2e per person per year.

For a UK inhabitant with a mean consumption-based carbon footprint of 14 to 16 tonnes per year, a 10 tonne (and even an 8 tonne) CO2e per person footprint should be achievable by actions at the individual or household level, such as those that you can explore with the carbon calculator. A lighter footprint than these is likely to require actions by government (and business), and the calculator allows you to try the effect of some of these actions in Activity 11 in Section 5.

If you live outside the UK, find the mean CO2 emissions per person for your country using the sources for Table 2 and Figure 9. Then work out your individual target footprint (e.g. using the EU countries’ target of 40% reduction by 2030 or by searching for ‘emissions reduction pledges, Paris 2015’).