Climate change is an issue that affects all people and all places. To mitigate the worst effects, humans need to completely stop combustion of fossil fuels. To explore the likelihood of this scenario, let’s look at tobacco use in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
Tobacco use is prevalent in the US. 18.1% of adults are current smokers and 23.3% of high school students currently use tobacco. That means at least 14.3% of the entire US population uses tobacco products.
Tobacco use has no benefits that aren’t canceled out by its risks. We’ve known this since at least 1957. And this is a problem that affects everyone. That means we’ve had 57 years to reduce tobacco usage rates to reduce collective costs. But 14% of the population still consumes tobacco products.
Now, imagine that the US made a commitment to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Keep in mind that burning fossil fuels has obvious benefits; they can be used for something as fundamental as heating your home. How many people would ignore the advice and commitments of our government to reduce emissions? I would bet a lot of money it won’t be less than our proportion of tobacco users; a product that has no benefits.
Of course, this scenario is more plausible as a comparison between nations since each nation will approach reductions differently. If 14.3% of current world emissions are still emitted by CO2 “cheaters”, nearly 5,000,000,000 tons of CO2 will be emitted every year. That’s on the order of 1,000 pounds for every person every year.
This is an additional reason that we need to develop plans that draw CO2 out of the atmosphere. Most projections include many years (later in the century) of negative carbon emissions in order to allow economic growth to continue now. In future plans, we need to consider that many countries may “cheat” by continuing to use fossil fuels even after most countries have reduced their emissions to near zero.