Today’s children will emit 10 times less CO2 than their grandparents

co2 emissions for kids and their parents
If the world achieves net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, according to IEA estimates.
Image: Unsplash/Grant Durr.
  • Today’s children will emit 10 times less CO2 than their grandparents, if the world reaches net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, the IEA estimates.
  • In advanced economies with bigger carbon footprints, people born in the 1950s could emit 15 times more CO2 than their descendants.
  • The carbon footprints of grandparents in developing economies are smaller, at only three and a half times the size of children born in the 2020s.
  • Getting to net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 does not mean sacrificing wealth, the IEA says.

Babies born this decade will emit 10 times less carbon than their grandparents – if the world becomes carbon neutral by 2050.

That’s the conclusion of the International Energy Agency (IEA). It has modelled how the carbon footprints of different generations born between the 1950s and 2020s would look, if the world was on track to reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

The IEA's Roadmap to Net Zero by 2050 scenario identifies technology and lifestyle changes and other “essential conditions” needed to reach this goal, which scientists hope will limit global warming and the worst effects of climate change.

For example, four times more solar and wind power capacity than now would have to be added every year by 2030. “Wide swathes” of the economy would also have to be electrified, including cars, building heating and machines used in industry.

Global average lifetime CO2 emissions per capita by decade of birth in the Net Zero Scenario, 1950s-2020s

Chart showing global average lifetime CO2 emissions per capita by decade of birth in the Net Zero Scenario, 1950s-2020s.
Babies born today will emit 34 tonnes of CO2 in their lifetimes, 10 times less than their grandparents, if the world achieves carbon neutrality by 2050, the IEA estimates.

Baby boomers emit more CO2 than 2020s children

Looking globally, the IEA reckons an average person born in the 1950s will probably emit 350 tonnes of CO2 over their lifetime, if the world achieves net zero by 2050. This compares to the average child born today emitting just 34 tonnes of CO2 each in the same scenario. This means the carbon footprint of an average baby boomer – someone born between 1950 and 1964 – is 10 times bigger than today’s ‘Generation Alpha’ children. The analysis also looks at Generation Z – people born between 1997 and 2012 – and suggests they would emit an average 110 tonnes of CO2 over their lifetimes in a net zero by 2050 scenario.

Lifetime CO2 emissions per capita by decade of birth in advanced economies in the Net Zero Scenario, 1950s-2020s

Chart showing Lifetime CO2 emissions per capita by decade of birth in advanced economies in the Net Zero Scenario, 1950s-2020s.
Grandparents in advanced economies have larger carbon footprints, because of higher emissions in those countries.

In advanced economies, grandparents have even bigger CO2 footprints

In advanced economies like North America and Europe, the generational gap between carbon footprints would be even bigger, the IEA believes. This is because advanced economies have historically emitted more carbon than less developed economies.

For example, people born in the United States or European Union in the 1950s could have carbon footprints that are 15 times bigger than those of their descendants born in the 2020s.

Lifetime CO2 emissions per capita by decade of birth in emerging market and developing economies in the Net Zero Scenario, 1950s-2020s

Chart showing ifetime CO2 emissions per capita by decade of birth in emerging market and developing economies in the Net Zero Scenario, 1950s-2020s
In emerging economies, the gap in CO2 footprints between the generations is narrower, because of smaller carbon footprints.

Emerging economies show smaller variations in carbon footprints between the generations

In developing economies with smaller carbon footprints, the gap between generations is much narrower. In India, the carbon footprints of people born in the 1950s is only three and a half times bigger than those of children born in the 2020s, the IEA’s net zero scenario finds. In China, the 1950s footprint is four times bigger than the 2020s one.

These lower CO2 emissions weren’t achieved by sacrificing wealth or economic opportunity, the IEA stresses. “Almost all countries are becoming wealthier in real terms,” it adds.

In the United States, for example, the output of goods and services per head of the population is around 45% higher today than in 1990. In India, the same calculation puts the country’s economy 275% ahead of where it was 30 years ago, with ‘substantial’ growth projected.

“Our Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario assumes the global economy will double in size between 2020 and 2050,” the IEA says.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

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