climate change equality

The shrinking carbon budgets of future generations

Carbon budgets are a useful way of thinking about climate change action. A monetary budget represents a sum of money that’s available for spending. A carbon budget is the amount of carbon that can be safely emitted without overshooting a particular target. The budget for 1.5 degrees is much tighter than 2 degrees.

We can think of carbon budget as a global total. Countries with climate targets also have a carbon budget. As Carbon Brief explained last week, we can think of individual carbon budgets too. By combining population and emissions data, they have plotted carbon budgets across generations.

This graph shows shares of global emissions during individual lifetimes. As a global average, it glosses over the huge inequalities in emissions across the world, so it’s just illustrative. There’s another graph divided by country here.

The headline message from this graph is that “young people will not have the luxury of unmitigated emissions enjoyed by older generations.” The later your birth year, the less CO2 you will be able to emit over the course of your life. I was born in 1981 and get 471 tonnes. That’s 1.7 times less than someone born in 1950. My son, born 30 years later, gets a lifetime budget of just 138 tonnes.

This is a useful demonstration of the intergenerational inequalities of climate change. By failing to rein in emissions earlier, the people who come after us have less to work with. Things we have taken for granted are ruled out, and every year of delay forces our children into more drastic action.

As you may have noticed, the younger generations have noticed this. For years we have talked about future generations in that abstract, theoretical way. Children today are that generation, and they are no longer theoretical. They’re here, and they’re angry. Adults have failed them on climate change, and they will come to realise that adults also hold all the money, the power and the property. That inequality, and the anger at it, could unfold in a number of ways. It could easily be exploited by extremists, and inter-generational justice is going to be an increasingly important story in the coming years.

There’s lots more detail from Carbon Brief, where you can also calculate your own personal carbon budget based on your date of birth.


  1. Great post as ever Jeremy. I love the Carbon Brief analysis, and I think it’s interesting to see lifetime emissions based on age, but I’ve also seen a number of comments and headlines elsewhere to the effect that our children and grand children will have to have much smaller carbon footprints in the future.

    This sort of thinking only serves to kick action into the future for many.

    The last IPCC report stated that total annual anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions needs to be circa 25 gigatonnes by 2030. This gives us a total of 3 tonnes of greenhouse gas per year for every man, woman and child on planet earth in 11 years time – regardless of age.

  2. This is a very interesting and thought-provoking article. Clicking on the link to the individual country interactive chart left me almost ashamed at having been born in the UK in 1950 – not that I could have done much about that!

    It certainly emphasises the importance of curbing our excesses to allow a little more of the world to be left for my 1-year old granddaughter Bethany and her successors!

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