Humanity’s affluent 1% drive climate change


The richest one percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the 3.1 billion people who made up the poorest half of humanity during a critical 25-year period of unprecedented emissions growth, according to a new study by the aid group Oxfam. The report, “Confronting Carbon Inequality,” is based on research conducted with the Stockholm Environment Institute and has been released as world leaders prepare to meet at the UN General Assembly to discuss global challenges including the climate crisis. The report assesses the “consumption emissions” of different income groups between 1990 and 2015—the 25 years when humanity doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It found:

  • The richest 10 percent accounted for over half (52 percent) of the emissions added to the atmosphere between 1990 and 2015. The richest one percent were responsible for 15 percent of emissions during this time—more than all the citizens of the EU and more than twice that of the poorest half of humanity (7 percent).
  • During this time, the richest 10 percent blew one third of our remaining global 1.5 C carbon budget, compared to just 4 percent for the poorest half of the population. The carbon budget is the amount of carbon dioxide that can be added to the atmosphere without causing global temperatures to rise above 1.5 C—the goal set by governments in the Paris Agreement to avoid the very worst impacts of uncontrolled climate change.
  • Annual emissions grew by 60 percent between 1990 and 2015. The richest 5 percent were responsible for over a third (37 percent) of this growth. The total increase in emissions of the richest one percent was three times more than that of the poorest 50 percent.

Tim Gore, head of climate policy at Oxfam and author of the report, said: “The over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fuelling the climate crisis, yet it is poor communities and young people who are paying the price. Such extreme carbon inequality is a direct consequence of our governments’ decades-long pursuit of grossly unequal and carbon-intensive economic growth.”

Carbon emissions are likely to rapidly rebound as governments ease COVID-related lockdowns. If emissions do not keep falling year on year and carbon inequality is left unchecked, the remaining carbon budget for 1.5 C will be entirely depleted by 2030. However, carbon inequality is so stark that the richest 10 percent would blow the carbon budget by 2033 even if all other emissions were cut to zero.

During 2020, climate change has fuelled deadly cyclones in India and Bangladesh, huge locust swarms that have devastated crops across Africa, and unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires have swept across Australia and the US. No one is immune, but it is the poorest and most marginalized people who are hardest hit. For example, women are at increased risk of violence and abuse in the aftermath of a disaster.

The report estimates that the per capita emissions of the richest 10 percent will need to be around 10 times lower by 2030 to keep the world on track for just 1.5 C of warming—the equivalent of cutting global annual emissions by a third. Even reducing the per capita emissions of the richest 10 percent to the EU average would cut annual emissions by over a quarter.

Gore said: “Simply rebooting our outdated, unfair, and polluting pre-COVID economies is no longer a viable option. Governments must seize this opportunity to reshape our economies and build a better tomorrow for us all. Governments must curb the emissions of the wealthy through taxes and bans on luxury carbon such as SUVs and frequent flights. Revenues should be invested in in public services and low-carbon sectors to create jobs, and help end poverty.”

The poorest 50 percent of humanity comprised approximately 3.1 billion people on average between 1990 and 2015, the richest 10 percent comprised approximately 630 million people, the richest 5 percent approximately 315 million people, and the richest one percent approximately 63 million people.

In 2015, around half the emissions of the richest 10 percent—people with net income over $38,000—are linked to citizens in the US and the EU, and around a fifth to citizens of China and India. Over a third of the emissions of the richest one percent—people with net income over $109,000—are linked to citizens in the US, with the next biggest contributions from citizens of the Middle East and China.

The research is based on estimations of “consumption emissions” from fossil fuels, i.e. emissions from consumption within a country, including emissions embodied in imports but excluding emissions embodied in exports. National consumption emissions were divided between individual households based on the latest income distribution datasets and a functional relationship between emissions and income. This assumes, on the basis of numerous studies, that emissions rise in proportion to income above a minimum emissions floor, until a maximum emissions ceiling is reached. National household consumption emissions estimates for 117 countries from 1990 to 2015 were then sorted into a global distribution according to income.

From Oxfam, Sept. 21

Note: Recent studies have found that the 1.5 C rise set as a maximum by the Paris Agreement will be reached within five years.

Photo: malingering via The Source Metro