Sustainability Science

, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 135–141 | Cite as

Human well-being, the global emissions debt, and climate change commitment

  • Noah S. DiffenbaughEmail author
Note and Comment


Energy consumption is fundamentally necessary for human well-being. However, although increasing energy consumption provides substantial improvements in well-being for low and intermediate levels of development, incremental increases in consumption fail to provide improvements for “super-developed” countries that exhibit the highest levels of development and energy consumption. The aim of this note is, therefore, to quantitatively explore the global emissions debt and climate change commitment associated with the gap in energy consumption between the energy-saturated super-developed countries and the rest of the world. Adopting Kates’ identity, I calculate that elevating the current populations in the non-super-developed countries to the energy and carbon intensities of the United States is akin to adding the fossil-fuel CO2 emissions of more than 15 United States to the global annual total, implying cumulative emissions of almost 4000 GT CO2 from 2010 through 2050. The inevitability of continued emissions beyond 2050 suggests that the transition of non-super-developed countries to a US-like profile between now and 2050 could, by itself, plausibly result in global warming of 3.2 °C above the late-twentieth century baseline, including an extremely high likelihood that global warming would exceed 1.2 °C. Global warming of this magnitude is likely to cause regional climate change that falls well outside of the baseline variations to which much of the world is presently accustomed, meaning that a US-like energy-development pathway carries substantial climate change commitment for both non-super-developed and super-developed countries, independent of future emissions from the super-developed world. However, the assumption that all countries converge on the minimum energy intensity of the super-developed world and a carbon-free energy system between now and 2050 implies cumulative CO2 emissions of less than 1000 GT CO2 between 2010 and 2050, along with a less than 40 % probability of exceeding 1.2 °C of additional global warming. It is, therefore, possible that intensive efforts to develop and deploy global-scale capacity for low-carbon energy consumption could simultaneously ensure human well-being and substantially limit the associated climate change commitment.


Climate change Global warming Carbon emissions Sustainability HDI CMIP3 



I thank Pamela Matson and Christopher Field for their helpful discussions, and the two anonymous reviewers and the Editorial Office for the insightful and constructive comments. The analyses presented here were supported, in part, by grants from the DOE Integrated Assessment Modeling program and the World Bank TFESSD.


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Copyright information

© Springer 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental Earth System Science and Woods Institute for the EnvironmentStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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