Do More Carbon Emissions Equal Better Quality of Life?


According to data from the World Bank, the UK’s per capita level of CO2 emissions is 7.1 tonnes. To give that figure a little content, the United States has a per capita figure of 17 tonnes of CO2, while India sits at a mere 1.7 tonnes.

There are large disparities from country to country but broadly speaking western nations produce orders of magnitude more emissions than developing ones. However, per capita emissions don’t line up neatly with quality of life. While it is true that on average countries with higher per capita emissions also enjoy higher quality of life, returns diminish past a certain point. The following chart plots the relationship of per capita emissions vs. attainment on the United Nations’ Human Development Index for OECD countries.


According to the 2011 Human Development Index (the vertical axis in the graph, which measures life expectancy, education and earnings per capita) there is hardly any appreciable difference in quality of life between Switzerland, the United States and Australia, yet Switzerland’s per capita CO2 emissions (the horizontal axis) are over three times less than those of the United States. Even though the United States and Switzerland have radically different economies, geographies, and energy mixes, the fact remains that one is achieving the same as the other in terms of human welfare while producing under a third of the pollution. For Switzerland, every tonne of CO2 per capita is worth .18 points on the Human Development Index, while for the United States one tonne of CO2 is worth only 0.053 points on the HDI. Or compare Norway to Luxembourg: one is the highest ranked country in the HDI and has a per capita figure of 9.2 tonnes of CO2 while the other produces a gigantic 21 tonnes of CO2 per capita and ranks almost a full decimal point below the Scandinavian country.

When it comes to western, developed nations, more emissions don’t necessarily improve quality of life. It is entirely possible to achieve a very high level of human development without per capita emissions skyrocketing to over 15 tonnes of CO2 or even bigger figures. While western prosperity was to an extent built on cheap and practically unlimited access to fossil fuels, we are now in a time where renewables are a real, credible alternative. With energy storage technology improving and adoption growing, electric and hybrid vehicles becoming more price competitive with regular cars and more reliable, and with the levelised cost of solar and wind energy dropping in comparison to that of fossil fuels, we have real options and a significant margin to be able to reduce our emissions and maintain our standard of living.


What can each of us do as individuals?

There are hundreds of ways to make a positive impact. Community energy is one, as developing solar and wind energy improves the energy mix of our country and offsets carbon emissions. A 5MW community-owned solar farm can save around 2,000 tonnes of CO2 a year, power 1,200 homes, and produce economic benefits for its local region. If you want to learn more about community energy have a look at the projects that are currently ongoing by some of our partner co-ops.

One of the most important and perhaps most underrated ways to contribute is to make the climate and the environment a major voting issue in political elections. Many political leaders don’t take this seriously because they know the environment still doesn’t rank highly in most people’s lists of voting issues. In a 2015 YouGov study, prior to the last election, the three most important issues were “the economy”, “health” and “immigration” with “the environment” coming in in tenth place in importance to voters. While these issues may seem more pressing, in the mid to long term climate change will cause greater and more chaotic migration of peoples, worsen the health of the population because a more extreme climate makes people more vulnerable to illness, and disrupt the economy because of loss of farmland, changes to the natural seasonal cycles, more freak weather incidents and a host of others.

As well as supporting green energy development and engaging with this issue politically we can also work to reduce our personal carbon footprint. An interesting idea is to come up with a personal emissions reduction target, much like many states are now doing under the Paris Climate Agreement – for example trying to reduce your emissions by 10% every year by making incremental changes to your lifestyle such as reducing your red meat intake, buying locally produced products, switching all the lights in your home to LED or CFL bulbs, turning off appliances instead of leaving them on standby, and driving less. Have a look at our list of 5 easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint to learn more.

There are many tools available to calculate your personal carbon footprint, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature’s carbon footprint calculator. These calculators are inexact but they provide a good enough approximation you can use as a starting point if you want to make changes to your lifestyle.