What is your carbon footprint Target? A man stands on a rock looking at a star filled  sky.

Carbon Footprint Targets

What your result means and what to aim for

What is your carbon footprint Target? A man stands on a rock looking at a star filled  sky.

Carbon Footprint Targets

What your result means and what to aim for

Estimating your carbon footprint can help you decide what lifestyle changes to implement to fight the climate crisis and our calculator was designed to do just that. However, knowing your footprint can raise more questions than it answers. You may be wondering how low your carbon footprint would have to be to prevent the worst climate change scenarios. This guide is meant to help you make sense of your footprint estimate and to discuss the topic of setting carbon footprint targets.

What is acceptable?

To arrive at a carbon footprint target it makes sense to start by thinking about the consequences of climate change. It is only based on this information that you can judge how much this crisis matters to you and what you are willing to do to address it.

The infographic below summarises the predicted impact of different climate change scenarios. It is based on the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C which assessed the global scientific, technical and socio-economic literature to provide a coherent picture of what may lie ahead.

One aspect that stands out from comparing the scenarios is that the difference between 1.5 °C and 2 °C is huge. Taking one example, the research suggests that in this half of a degree lies the difference between essentially all coral reefs disappearing or not. This is why the Paris agreement aims to keep global warming well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to try to limit it to 1.5 °C.

Estimating your carbon footprint can help you decide what lifestyle changes to implement to fight the climate crisis and our calculator was designed to do just that. However, knowing your footprint can raise more questions than it answers. You may be wondering how low your carbon footprint would have to be to prevent the worst climate change scenarios. This guide is meant to help you make sense of your footprint estimate and to discuss the topic of setting carbon footprint targets.

What is acceptable?

To arrive at a carbon footprint target it makes sense to start by thinking about the consequences of climate change. It is only based on this information that you can judge how much this crisis matters to you and what you are willing to do to address it.

The infographic below summarises the predicted impact of different climate change scenarios. It's based on the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 °C which assessed the scientific, technical and socio-economic literature to provide a coherent picture of what may lie ahead.

One aspect that stands out from comparing the scenarios is that the difference between 1.5 °C and 2 °C is huge. Taking one example, the research suggests that in this half of a degree lies the difference between essentially all coral reefs disappearing or not. This is why the Paris agreement aims to keep global warming well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to try to limit it to 1.5 °C.

A graph showing how our world would look if we don't meet carbon footprint targets and global temperatures rise.
A graph showing the impact on flora and fauna if we don't meet carbon footprint targets and global temperatures rise.
A graph showing the impacts on sea level rise if we don't meet carbon footprint targets and global temperatures  rise.
A graph showing the impacts on water  if we don't meet carbon footprint targets and global temperatures  rise.
A graph showing the impacts on food  if we don't meet carbon footprint targets and global temperatures  rise.

Source: Climate Nexus (https://climatenexus.org/)

A cityscape at sunset with factories and industry smoke bellowing into the sky.

How much can we still emit?

A global carbon budget

Based on the above, it is fair to say that half a degree matters, but what kind of changes do we need to make to reach these carbon footprint targets?

One way to think about this problem is to estimate a global carbon budget. This represents the maximum amount of greenhouse gases that the world population can emit while preventing global warming beyond 1.5 to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. Although it is a simple concept, the carbon budget is difficult to estimate.

To address this, scientists from all around the world have been running complex simulation models that allow them to predict how the climate will respond to different emission scenarios.

While there is no question that rapid action is required, it is hard to know how much of the budget we have left. Some studies suggest we have already exhausted it while others predict that this will only occur in a couple of decades.

Still, by considering all the possible scenarios, we can get an idea of the emission reductions we need.

How does my footprint fit into the picture?

Personal carbon footprint targets

To understand how our personal footprint fits into this global picture requires a few extra considerations.

First, we have to divide the budget by the predicted world population size at each moment in time.

Second, we have to take into account the fact that individual lifestyle choices and consumption only account for part of all emissions. This is expected to be around 72% of global emissions based on a research article that looked at these proportions at the global level.

A recent report combined all this information to arrive at some very useful targets. This plot shows you the personal carbon footprint limits, in tonnes of CO2e per year, that are consistent with the Paris Agreement targets.

A bar graph showing personal carboon footprint targets for the next 30 years.
A  graph showing the later we start reducing our emissions the steeper the reductions have to be to stay on top of our carbon footprint targets.

Source: Carbon Brief (https://www.carbonbrief.org/)

Interperting the targets

Useful as a simple guideline

There are a few things to keep in mind when comparing your carbon footprint to these targets. First, unlike our carbon footprint calculator, they assume that individuals are not accountable for the land use change associated with food consumption. If these components were included, the targets would be slightly less strict.

Second, this is just one of the many ways in which the carbon budget can be spread out over time. As shown by the graph on the left, the later we start reducing our emissions the steeper the reductions have to be to stay on target. Conversely, the slower we are to change, the greater the burden we are leaving for the future.

Despite the caveats, these carbon footprint targets should give you a good idea of the kind of change that needs to take place and how your personal carbon footprint fits into the bigger picture.

Encouraging thoughts

Most people in wealthy nations will be well above these targets but that should not be demotivating, here are 5 reasons why.

1. The higher your footprint the more opportunities to have a big impact

If you have a large carbon footprint there are probably many different lifestyle changes that you can make that will have a big impact. Therefore, it is more likely that you will be able to slice your footprint substantially without much effort at all by choosing the measures that you can implement right now.

2. Climate change is not either or

The relationship between emissions and climate change is continuous by its very nature so don’t get too bogged down by the targets. While we aim for 1.5 °C things get progressively worse at 2, 3 and 4 °C. It is never a lost battle, it is an ongoing one where every bit counts!

3. There are many ways to fight the climate crisis

For some people it can be very hard to implement the necessary lifestyle changes. However they can still take action on the climate by means of their influence on society. This can be achieved through voting, activism, investment in climate solutions, divestment from polluting industries and talking about the issue with family and friends to list just a few. Although we can’t accurately measure the impact of many of these measures it doesn’t mean they are less important. On top of this, by becoming a mossy earth member you can plant 40 native trees per year which will be absorbing carbon dioxide for years to come.  

4. You get to choose your own pace  

Some people are happy to make big sudden lifestyle changes to lower their footprint. However, for most, a steady incremental approach probably works best. What matters is what you achieve on average and in the long-term so it is important to aim for sustainable habit changes.

5. You don’t have to be a climate saint to have an impact

Which lifestyle changes have the biggest impact and which are the hardest to implement will vary a lot from person to person (to learn some of the reasons why check out our podcast). Navigating this map of opportunities is a personal process and you shouldn’t feel like a hypocrite if you are making big changes in one part of your lifestyle but not another.

Sources & further reading

✅ for peer reviewed research

IPCC, 2018: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.). https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/. ✅

Rogelj, J., Popp, A., Calvin, K.V. et al. Scenarios towards limiting global mean temperature increase below 1.5 °C. Nature Clim Change 8, 325–332 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0091-3

Hertwich, Edgar G., and Glen P. Peters. 2009. “Carbon Footprint of Nations: A Global, Trade-Linked Analysis.” Environmental Science and Technology 43 (16): 6414–20.  https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/es803496a

IGES, 2020: 1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Targets and options for reducing lifestyle carbon footprints.
C Mao, R Koide, A Brem, L Akenji. https://www.iges.or.jp/en/pub/15-degrees-lifestyles-2019/en

Hausfather, Z., Drake, H. F., Abbott, T., & Schmidt, G. A. (2020). Evaluating the performance of past climate model projections. Geophysical Research Letters, 47, e2019GL085378. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019GL085378

A graph showing how our world would look if we don't meet carbon footprint targets and global temperatures rise.
A graph showing the impact on flora and fauna if we don't meet carbon footprint targets and global temperatures rise.
A graph showing the impacts on sea level rise if we don't meet carbon footprint targets and global temperatures  rise.
A graph showing the impacts on water  if we don't meet carbon footprint targets and global temperatures  rise.
A graph showing the impacts on food  if we don't meet carbon footprint targets and global temperatures  rise.

Source: Source: Climate Nexus (https://climatenexus.org/)

How much can we still emit?

A global carbon budget

Based on the above, it is fair to say that half a degree matters, but what kind of changes do we need to make to reach these carbon footprint targets?

One way to think about this problem is to estimate a global carbon budget. This represents the maximum amount of greenhouse gases that the world population can emit while preventing global warming beyond 1.5 to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. Although it is a simple concept, the carbon budget is difficult to estimate.

To address this, scientists from all around the world have been running complex simulation models that allow them to predict how the climate will respond to different emission scenarios.

While there is no question that rapid action is required, it is hard to know how much of the budget we have left. Some studies suggest we have already exhausted it while others predict that this will only occur in a couple of decades.

Still, by considering all the possible scenarios, we can get an idea of the emission reductions we need.

A cityscape at sunset with factories and industry smoke bellowing into the sky.

How does my footprint fit into the picture?

Personal carbon footprint targets

To understand how our personal footprint fits into this global picture requires a few extra considerations.

First, we have to divide the budget by the predicted world population size at each moment in time.

Second, we have to take into account the fact that individual lifestyle choices and consumption only account for part of all emissions. This is expected to be around 72% of global emissions based on a research article that looked at these proportions at the global level.

A recent report combined all this information to arrive at some very useful targets. This plot shows you the personal carbon footprint limits, in tonnes of CO2e per year, that are consistent with the Paris Agreement targets.

A bar graph showing personal carboon footprint targets for the next 30 years.

Interpreting the targets

Useful as a simple guideline

There are a few things to keep in mind when comparing your carbon footprint to these targets. First, unlike our carbon footprint calculator, they assume that individuals are not accountable for the land use change associated with food consumption. If these components were included, the targets would be slightly less strict.

Second, this is just one of the many ways in which the carbon budget can be spread out over time. As shown by the graph on the left, the later we start reducing our emissions the steeper the reductions have to be to stay on target. Conversely, the slower we are to change, the greater the burden we are leaving for the future.

Despite the caveats, these carbon footprint targets should give you a good idea of the kind of change that needs to take place and how your personal carbon footprint fits into the bigger picture.

A  graph showing the later we start reducing our emissions the steeper the reductions have to be to stay on top of our carbon footprint targets.

Source: Carbon Brief (https://www.carbonbrief.org/)

Encouraging thoughts

Most people in wealthy nations will be well above these targets but that should not be demotivating, here are 5 reasons why.

1. The higher your footprint the more opportunities to have a big impact

If you have a large carbon footprint there are probably many different lifestyle changes that you can make that will have a big impact. Therefore, it is more likely that you will be able to slice your footprint substantially without much effort at all by choosing the measures that you can implement right now.

2. Climate change is not either or

The relationship between emissions and climate change is continuous by its very nature so don’t get too bogged down by the targets. While we aim for 1.5 °C things get progressively worse at 2, 3 and 4 °C. It is never a lost battle, it is an ongoing one where every bit counts!

3. There are many ways to fight the climate crisis

For some people it can be very hard to implement the necessary lifestyle changes. However they can still take action on the climate by means of their influence on society. This can be achieved through voting, activism, investment in climate solutions, divestment from polluting industries and talking about the issue with family and friends to list just a few. Although we can’t accurately measure the impact of many of these measures it doesn’t mean they are less important. On top of this, by becoming a mossy earth member you can plant 40 native trees per year which will be absorbing carbon dioxide for years to come.  

4. You get to choose your own pace  

Some people are happy to make big sudden lifestyle changes to lower their footprint. However, for most, a steady incremental approach probably works best. What matters is what you achieve on average and in the long-term so it is important to aim for sustainable habit changes.

5. You don’t have to be a climate saint to have an impact

Which lifestyle changes have the biggest impact and which are the hardest to implement will vary a lot from person to person (to learn some of the reasons why check out our podcast). Navigating this map of opportunities is a personal process and you shouldn’t feel like a hypocrite if you are making big changes in one part of your lifestyle but not another.

Sources & further reading

✅ for peer reviewed research

IPCC, 2018: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.). https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/. ✅

Rogelj, J., Popp, A., Calvin, K.V. et al. Scenarios towards limiting global mean temperature increase below 1.5 °C. Nature Clim Change 8, 325–332 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0091-3

Hertwich, Edgar G., and Glen P. Peters. 2009. “Carbon Footprint of Nations: A Global, Trade-Linked Analysis.” Environmental Science and Technology 43 (16): 6414–20.  https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/es803496a

IGES, 2020: 1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Targets and options for reducing lifestyle carbon footprints.
C Mao, R Koide, A Brem, L Akenji. https://www.iges.or.jp/en/pub/15-degrees-lifestyles-2019/en

Hausfather, Z., Drake, H. F., Abbott, T., & Schmidt, G. A. (2020). Evaluating the performance of past climate model projections. Geophysical Research Letters, 47, e2019GL085378. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019GL085378