Future generations set to see carbon footprints shrink if net zero achieved

New research has predicted that a child born today will emit 10 times less carbon during their lifetime than their grandparents if the world hits its net zero targets by 2050.

The study by the team based at the International Energy Agency said as the younger generations have been faced with greater exposure to climate change they are more likely to drive a reduction in emissions.

However the move to a net zero future in the next 30 years will require reach change warns the report.

“This goal – which offers the world a fighting chance of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 °c and avoiding the worst effects of climate change – requires a total transformation of how we produce, transport and consume energy. It is an achievable but immensely challenging undertaking,” it said.

The study added the IEA’s Roadmap to Net Zero by 2050 identifies essential conditions for the global energy sector to reach net zero emissions by 2050, including changes in technology and lifestyle. Key milestones include quadrupling the amount of solar PV and wind power capacity added each year by 2030, improving the energy intensity of the world economy by 4% each year this decade, and electrifying wide swathes of the economy such as cars, heating in buildings, and industrial motors.

The team calculated the average lifetime C02 footprint according to a person’s year of birth.

“Lifetime C02 footprint”, as used in this commentary, measures the energy-related C02 emissions of an average individual over the course of their life.

“In the IEA scenario where the world manages to reach net zero emissions by 2050, the average person born in the 1950s would emit 350 tonnes of CO2 over their lifetime,” it added. “Babies born in the 2020s would emit on average a mere 34 tonnes of C02 each in the net zero scenario.

“In other words, the average Baby Boomer – defined by the Pew Centre as individuals born between 1950 and 1964 – would emit 10 times more in their lifetime than the average member of Generation Alpha, which refers to those born today or in the coming years. Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, would average 110 tonnes of C02 over their lifetimes if the world manages to reach net zero by 2050.”

The task for countries with historically high per capita emissions, such as in North America and Europe, is greater the research warned.

“In our Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, the lifetime C02 footprints of individuals born in the United States or European Union in the 1950s will be around 15 times greater than the footprints of their descendants born in the 2020s.

“By comparison, the lifetime C02 footprints of Indian individuals born in the 1950s will be only 3.5 times greater than those of their descendants born in the 2020s, while in China they are 4 times greater.”

The research said that the younger generation was already looking at ways they can play a part in the fight against global warming.

“Today’s youth are more exposed to climate damage than their parents, motivating many of them to tackle the challenge of reducing C02 footprints,” it added. “Adolescents are engaging with climate science and policy more actively than previous generations, participating keenly in climate forums.”

“Besides pushing for effective emissions reduction policies from their governments – which have the greatest capacity to shape our energy and climate destiny – today’s youth and future generations can make individual behavioural changes, such as choosing lower-carbon modes of transport, using less air-conditioning or space heating, avoiding flights, and recycling and reusing possessions.”

The study concluded: “Younger generations have the most at stake, and they also have the most to gain from successful energy transitions. Innovation has the potential to create millions of new jobs in emerging industries. Switching to clean energy can cut the air pollution that chokes many cities around the world.

“Lower-carbon lifestyles yield health benefits, for example by encouraging active travel and avoiding excessive food consumption. Strong and effective clean energy policies and investments today can not only lower the carbon intensity of younger generations’ energy use – but also enable them to capitalise on the benefits of energy transitions.”

Key milestones include quadrupling the amount of solar PV and wind power capacity added each year by 2030, improving the energy intensity of the world economy by 4% each year this decade, and electrifying wide swathes of the economy such as cars, heating in buildings, and industrial motors.

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