Carbon footprint chronicles: A deeper dive into the footprints of our case countries in 2015, 2030, and 2050

Pictured are the carbon footprints (tCO2e yr-1 per capita) for Germany, Spain, Hungary, Latvia, and Sweden. The footprints are projected for 2015, 2030, and 2050 and differentiate between clothing, goods, housing, services, energy, transport, food, and direct emissions. The 1.5° limit for 2030 is at around 2.3 tCO2e per capita. The 2050 limit is at around 0.5 tCO2e. None of the countries meet their 2030 or 2050 limit. Spain and Latvia almost meet their 2030 limit in 2050.
Carbon footprint projections per country and year

A previous blog post has detailed the carbon footprints for 49 countries and regions in 2015, 2030, and 2050 and how the EU 1.5° Lifestyles modelling team developed these footprint scenarios. In this post, we take a closer look at the household carbon footprints of the five case study countries of the EU 1.5° Lifestyles project.[1] The results in this post are based on our sustainable technological development scenario without lifestyle changes.[2]

None of the five case study countries will reach the 2030 target of 2.4 tCO2e/capita or the 2050 target of 0.6 tCO2e/capita target.[3] However, our scenario suggests that the household carbon footprints of our five case countries will still decrease from the base year in 2030, and continue to decrease through 2050. These reductions are possible despite the increase in per-capita household consumption included in our scenario.

Germany has the largest 2015 footprint (9.5 tCO2e/capita), and Hungary the smallest (4.9 tCO2e/capita). By 2050, both Latvia and Spain have smaller footprints than Hungary, and Sweden’s relatively smaller decrease leads to both Sweden and Germany having the same footprint (3.7 tCO2e/capita). Latvia’s footprint decreases by 62% from 2015 (5.8 tCO2e/capita) until 2050 (2.2 tCO2e/capita). Hungary’s household carbon footprint shows the smallest decrease (35%) from 2015 until 2050 (3.2 tCO2e/capita).

Indirect emissions decrease in every scenario year for all our case study countries due to the extensive technological changes. These changes include a shift to predominantly renewable sources in the energy system, more sustainable fuels for transport, and more efficient production in all industries. Direct emissions increase every year in Spain, Hungary, and Sweden. In contrast, direct emissions decrease every year in Latvia, and in Germany, direct emissions decrease to their lowest level in 2030 before slightly rebounding in 2050. Direct emissions typically account for about one-fifth of a household carbon footprint in the EU. However, that share doubles to an average of more than 40% of our case countries’ household footprints by 2050.

The amount by which each country can reduce its footprint through technological change alone varies due to the economic and consumption structures of each country and the scenario parameters. Consumption patterns at the country level influence future footprints, as patterns such as the current passenger distance travelled by car or the use of district heating are maintained in 2030 and 2050 in our scenario. District heating emissions are indirect, i.e. they occur upstream of a household, so district heating, which is popular in Sweden and Latvia, does not generate direct emissions at the household level like burning fossil fuels in an in-house boiler, which is more popular in the other case countries. Driving a car produces both indirect emissions from the fuel and vehicle production and direct emissions from the fuel combustion in the engine while driving. In our scenario, we assume that consumption will increase based on current patterns, so countries with heavy use of internal combustion engine vehicles, such as Germany, will continue to drive these vehicles in the future. However, emissions from transport are likely to increase in most countries without further lifestyle changes. Transport fuels have been shown to have an income elasticity greater than 1, so an increase in income is likely to lead to more transportation fuel consumption.[4]

Certain sectors are more difficult to decarbonise, and this is reflected in our case countries. For example, dairy is one of the top contributing product categories (out of 200) in all years for all countries except Spain. While per-capita emissions from dairy products will halve by 2050, the non-CO2 emissions from the food and agriculture sector are relatively difficult to decarbonise, so dairy (and other animal-based foods) will remain a major contributor to Europe’s carbon footprint. In contrast, electricity from coal is a major contributor to the footprint in Germany, Spain, and Hungary, but emissions from coal-fired power plants are reduced by more than 95% per capita by 2050 due to the phase-out of coal in our scenario.

One of the factors driving the reduction in (indirect) emissions in our scenario is a decrease in emissions intensity. This term refers to the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions associated with one euro of household consumption. Across the case countries, the weighted emissions intensity of an average consumption portfolio decreases by more than 80% from the baseline year to our final scenario year, 2050. This means that if household consumption (expenditure) per capita remains constant, emissions upstream of household consumption could be reduced to one-fifth of the 2015 level.[5]

While the technical potential for reduction seems promising, the ambitious assumptions in our scenario still would not allow any of our case countries to reach their 2050 (or 2030) emissions targets. The increased consumption and persisting unsustainable consumption patterns outpace sustainable technology to cause excess emissions. Overshoots range from 0.8 tCO2e/capita in Latvia to 3.0 tCO2e/capita in both Germany and Sweden in 2050. While these might seem like relatively small overshoots compared to the current (high) footprints, these excess emissions may be more than the entire footprint of a person living in Asia or Africa in 2015,[6] raising issues about how to distribute emissions budgets fairly. It is also worth keeping in mind that the emissions reduction potential of sustainable lifestyle changes will also change as industry decarbonises – but more on that in a future blog post.

Stephanie Cap and Laura Scherer, Leiden University


[1] Household carbon footprints refer to the greenhouse gas emissions that a consumer generates through their consumption of goods and services. These carbon footprints can be made up of direct and indirect emissions. Indirect emissions refer to emissions embedded over the whole life cycle of products and services that households consume. These are the emissions that are ‘embedded’ in the product, such as the emissions involved in the production of a package holiday, a jar of yoghurt, a car, or a year of district heating. Direct emissions refer to emissions from fossil fuel combustion at the household level, such as diesel used in a car engine or natural gas used for heating and cooking.

[2] We assume moderate Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth per capita along with widespread technological change, which is based on the SSP1 ‘Sustainable Development’ scenario used by the IPCC for exploring emissions pathways (see this paper). Our model has consumption patterns increase with more income but assumes that households continue their current lifestyle trajectory (regardless of whether this is 1.5°C-compatible or not). Household income increases proportionally to GDP per capita in our scenario, spending patterns shift to reflect the increased income, and there is no household uptake of important emissions-reduction activities such as switching to public transportation, eating primarily plant-based foods, and reducing living space and living temperature. For more details, see our previous blog post about background system modelling.

[3] We chose 2015 as a baseline year and calculated carbon footprint targets per capita based on the pathways from IPCC AR6 (the most recent IPCC reporting cycle) and the share of household emissions in total global emissions.

[4] Bjelle, E. L., Wiebe, K. S., Többen, J., Tisserant, A., Ivanova, D., Vita, G., & Wood, R. (2021). Future changes in consumption: The income effect on greenhouse gas emissions. Energy Economics, 95, 105114.

[5] The emissions intensity reduction excludes direct emissions. Potential absolute increases from a growing population should also be considered.

[6] Ivanova, D., Stadler, K., Steen-Olsen, K., Wood, R., Vita, G., Tukker, A., & Hertwich, E. G. (2016). Environmental Impact Assessment of Household Consumption. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 20(3), 526-536.