The impossibility of “80 by 50”

Both Clinton and Obama have endorsed the “80 by 50” target for greenhouse gas reductions: an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. Stephen Hayward ran the numbers to see what that would mean.

An 80% reduction in these emissions from 1990 levels means that the U.S. cannot emit more than about one billion metric tons of CO2 in 2050.

Were man-made carbon dioxide emissions in this country ever that low? The answer is probably yes – from historical energy data it is possible to estimate that the U.S. last emitted one billion metric tons around 1910. But in 1910, the U.S. had 92 million people, and per capita income, in current dollars, was about $6,000.

By the year 2050, the Census Bureau projects that our population will be around 420 million. This means per capita emissions will have to fall to about 2.5 tons in order to meet the goal of 80% reduction.

2.5 tons. Now we can compare that against what is possible:

It is likely that U.S. per capita emissions were never that low – even back in colonial days when the only fuel we burned was wood. The only nations in the world today that emit at this low level are all poor developing nations, such as Belize, Mauritius, Jordan, Haiti and Somalia.

If that comparison seems unfair, consider that even the least-CO2 emitting industrialized nations do not come close to the 2050 target. France and Switzerland, compact nations that generate almost all of their electricity from nonfossil fuel sources (nuclear for France, hydro for Switzerland) emit about 6.5 metric tons of CO2 per capita.

Now there is a new study out of MIT that computes the absolute minimum level of emissions that an American can achieve:

But the “floor” below which nobody in the U.S. can reach, no matter a person’s energy choices, turned out to be 8.5 tons, the class found. That was the emissions calculated for a homeless person who ate in soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters.

This offers some much-needed perspective.  Barring an unforeseen technological breakthrough, the 80 by 50 goal advocated by Clinton and Obama is literally impossible without returning the entire nation to abject poverty.

Oh, and McCain?  He is only slightly less the demagogue, advocating 65 by 50.  That works out to 4.375 per person, which is still impossible.  President Bush’s proposal, to freeze emissions at the current level, may be unpopular with greens, but it has the singular virtue of being possible.

(Via the Corner.)

UPDATE (January 2018): Links updated.

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