Children born today will emit 10 times less carbon during their lifetimes than their grandparents if the world achieves the goal of reducing global emissions to net zero by 2050.
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.
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. In the Roadmap’s pathway, almost half of the emissions reductions in 2050 rely on technologies that are still in the early stages of R&D today.
To show how these changes affect us as individuals, we calculated the average lifetime CO2 footprint according to a person’s year of birth. “Lifetime CO2 footprint”, as used in this commentary, measures the energy-related CO2 emissions of an average individual over the course of their life. The metric draws on historic emissions and population data from the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA’s) medium-variant projections.
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. Babies born in the 2020s would emit on average a mere 34 tonnes of CO2 each in the net zero scenario. In other words, the average Baby Boomer – defined by the Pew Center 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 CO2 over their lifetimes if the world manages to reach net zero by 2050.
Countries with historically high per capita emissions, such as in North America and Europe, need to achieve much larger generational reductions than countries with historically low per capita emissions, such as India. In our Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, the lifetime CO2 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 CO2 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. With a lower starting point in emissions per capita, much smaller changes are needed across generations.
These lower lifetime CO2 footprints between generations do not result from decreases in material well-being and economic opportunities. Almost all countries are becoming wealthier in real terms. For example, GDP per capita in the United States is around 45% higher today than in 1990. India’s GDP per capita is 275% higher than three decades ago, and projected to grow substantially. Our Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario assumes the global economy will double in size between 2020 and 2050.
Today’s youth are more exposed to climate damage than their parents, motivating many of them to tackle the challenge of reducing CO2 footprints. Adolescents are engaging with climate science and policy more actively than previous generations, participating keenly in climate forums. These include the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s annual Conference of Youth, the Youth4Climate meeting that produced an extensive manifesto in 2021, and the UN Youth Environment Assembly meeting in Nairobi starting 19 February. It is younger generations who are driving ambition for reducing emissions.
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.
Future generations will need far more low-carbon energy infrastructure and services than are available today. Clean energy technologies require years of R&D to reach market. Energy infrastructure projects – such as power plants, cement factories and steel mills – have long lifetimes, with serious implications for future decades. Sweeping systemic decarbonisation is necessary, not only to allow younger generations more flexibility in their lifestyle choices, but also to safeguard the future for younger generations. This makes it imperative that today’s leaders set in motion the necessary policies and investments right now.
Including the voices of young people in decision-making processes is essential to ensure that today’s policies adequately address their needs. Youth participation was highlighted by the Global Commission on People-Centred Clean Energy Transitions in its recommendations for the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. The average age of government cabinet members in advanced economies is 53, and the average age of Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs is 60. To achieve meaningful intergenerational dialogue, countries and companies need to scale up financial and administrative support for youth participation in climate planning, decision-making and action at all levels.
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.