Carbon intensity and economic growth

What’s the relationship between carbon output, and economic growth? If we look at both of these on a per-capita basis over the past 60 years, some fascinating trends start to emerge:

For developed countries seems like their carbon output per capita remains roughly flat with increased economic growth. In the US for example, carbon output was about 15 tons per capita in 1960, and is around the same today even though per-capita GDP has grown 20-fold, from $3,000 to $60,000 in that time.

In some countries like the UK, carbon output per person has fallen quite quickly, at no apparent cost to GDP per capita. In the last 10 years, Britains have cut their CO2 per capita by almost half, from around 9.5 to 5.5 tons per person, while per-capita GDP has remained constant at around $42,000.

Developing countries have a more linear relationship between carbon intensity and per-capita GDP, since they start from a much lower base. In 1960, the average Indian was responsible for just 300kg of CO2 per year, just one fiftieth as much as an American at the time. The ratio has since evened out somewhat, although in 2019 it still stood at one eighth. Interestingly, India and Brazil seem to be developing in a much less carbon-intensive way than China, emitting less carbon for a given level of GDP per capita than China (or developed countries) were at that point.

Regardless, we’re going to have to invest a lot in better technologies and energy systems if we’re to reach net zero. Our emissions are already 5X greater than in 1960, and they haven’t peaked yet.

Feel free to play around with the raw data yourself, and let me know if you have any comments or questions!



Technical product manager, interested in telling stories through data.

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