The Per Capita Principle

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Photo illustration by Morgan Slade and Alex Gross

2.8 Tons

In a fair world this number represents your own annual C02 emission limit – a limit necessary to maintain a hospitable climate on this planet. Right now developed nations are a long way off the mark. The average North American is responsible for about 20 tons of C02 emissions per year – seven times the per person limit.

The idea that we should share global carbon emissions is called the “per capita principle.” At its heart is the notion that every person living on the planet equally shares the right to emit greenhouse gases. If all seven billion of us share equal carbon emission rights, then climatologists estimate that 2.8 tons of C02 is the limit that each person can emit if we are to have a good chance at keeping the planet’s mean annual temperature from increasing by more than two degrees Celsius (which in 2009 many G8 leaders, Obama included, agreed we must do).

What will be the result if we fail to achieve this goal over the next nine years? Extinction, probably. According to leading climatologist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of Germany, if we fail to reduce our per person carbon emissions to 2.8 tons by 2020, the human species stands little chance of survival.

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