The Future is Equal

Archives for September 21, 2020

The Carbon Inequality Era

in 1990, we entered a new global era.

From 1990 until 2015, as much carbon entered our atmosphere as had been emitted in all previous years in our history.

Our new report, Confronting Carbon Inequality, shows that responsibility for this rapid emissions rise is shockingly unequal. In this period, the richest 10% emitted
the same amount of carbon as the rest of the world combined.

And the very richest 1% of people – the global elite – emitted double the amount of carbon as the poorest 50% of humanity.

This is the era of extreme carbon inequality.

Who are the richest 10%?

If your net income is over USD$38,000 annually, the chances are you’re one of the richest 10% of people in the world. (Find how much that is in your currency here.)

That 10% – around 630 million people at the time of the study – live in every continent, and there are wealthy communities in every country. A sizeable proportion of the population in North America and Europe sit comfortably in this demographic. By contrast, in most parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the number of people on the global 10% rich list is tiny.

The emissions of the richest largely come from flying more, buying more polluting cars such as SUVs, and driving them further. These are often known as ‘lifestyle’ emissions.

Additionally, many of the emissions we all produce are ‘embedded’ – this means that they are happening because we live in a world that still relies on fossil fuels. In
cooler climates, people need to heat their homes, for example, and gas is still the most accessible option. Many of us can make climate-conscious choices when
it comes to the food we eat, the clothes and tech we buy – but all come with
some carbon cost in this system.

So as well as individual action, we need radical, far-reaching change to the system if we are to truly confront carbon inequality.

Why now?

Time is short. There is a limit to the total amount of carbon that can be pumped into the atmosphere. Breaching this limit – the so-called ‘carbon budget’ – will trigger runaway global heating, that we can no longer control or remedy. Think of it like filling a bath – there is still some space left before we reach the top, but if we don’t turn off the taps now, it’s going to overflow.

Over the last decades, this remaining ‘space’ in the atmosphere could have been used to lift all of humanity out of poverty, towards a decent standard of living. Adding some carbon emissions by connecting people to the electricity grid while we’re still transitioning to renewables, for example.

Instead, the carbon budget has been spent by the already-rich on luxury emissions. If we continue as we are, we will blow the carbon budget in the next ten years. Carbon inequality is driving us towards climate catastrophe.

So, what do we do now?

Back to the bath analogy – just as every drop of water increases the risk of an overflow, every ton of carbon counts in moving us towards the climate brink. 

As every ton counts, there is hope if we all play a role individually and collectively. COVID-19 showed us – painfully, and unjustly, but decisively nonetheless – that huge changes are possible when necessary. Flights were grounded, new bike lanes appeared in cities, and homeworking cut traffic congestion. Governments and
businesses showed they can be radical when there is no other choice.

As we turn towards recovery from the pandemic, governments must act to cut the emissions of the richest and increase support to the poorest. Four ways to do this are:

  1. Tax the richest more, to help curb spiralling inequality.
  2. Introduce an added cost to luxury emissions such as multiple flights and SUVs. Use the extra cash to fund universal social protection, health and care.
  3. Invest more in low-carbon projects like public transport and energy efficiency, and guarantee decent jobs.
  4. Ban advertising in public spaces, especially for high-carbon luxury products. 

Looking at the big picture, we must profoundly change the way we measure economic success. Let’s learn from the past decades and prioritize care, the sustainability of life, health, and wellbeing, instead of pursuing endless economic growth.

2020 must mark the end of the carbon inequality era. How we shape the next decades – the post-COVID era – is up to us.

Join our community of #EarthProtectors and play your part in confronting carbon inequality:

Carbon emissions of richest 1 per cent more than double the emissions of the poorest half of humanity

The richest one per cent 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.

Oxfam’s new report, ‘Confronting Carbon Inequality,’ is based on research conducted with the Stockholm Environment Institute and is being 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 – 25 years when humanity doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It found

·         The richest 10 per cent accounted for over half (52 per cent) of the emissions added to the atmosphere between 1990 and 2015. The richest one per cent were responsible for 15 per cent 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 per cent).

·         During this time, the richest 10 per cent blew one third of our remaining global 1.5C carbon budget, compared to just 4 per cent 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 1.5C – the goal set by governments in the Paris Agreement to avoid the very worst impacts of uncontrolled climate change.

·         Annual emissions grew by 60 per cent between 1990 and 2015. The richest 5 per cent were responsible for over a third (37 per cent) of this growth. The total increase in emissions of the richest one per cent was three times more than that of the poorest 50 per cent.

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 1.5C will be entirely depleted by 2030. However, carbon inequality is so stark the richest 10 per cent would blow the carbon budget by 2033, even if all other emissions were cut to zero.

A report published by Oxfam New Zealand this week highlighted how New Zealand’s national targets are inequitable and woefully insufficient to limit global warming to 1.5C. Communications and Advocacy Director Dr Joanna Spratt said that by not pulling its weight, New Zealand is placing an unfair burden on poorer countries, including Pacific nations, who are on the front lines of climate breakdown.

“As a wealthy nation with historical responsibility for causing climate breakdown, New Zealand has a responsibility to do more than the global average to reduce emissions,” Spratt said. “The impacts of climate change are not distributed equally amongst individuals or nations – nor should be the responsibility for tackling it.”

During 2020, and with around 1C of global heating, climate change has fuelled deadly cyclones in India and Bangladesh, huge locust swarms that have devastated crops across Africa and unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires across Australia and the US. No one is immune, but it is the poorest and most marginalised people who are hardest hit. For example, women are at increased risk of violence and abuse in the aftermath of a disaster.

Confronting Carbon Inequality‘ estimates that the per capita emissions of the richest 10 per cent will need to be around ten times lower by 2030 to keep the world on track for just 1.5C of warming – this is equivalent to cutting global annual emissions by a third. Even reducing the per capita emissions of the richest 10 per cent to the EU average would cut annual emissions by over a quarter.

Governments can tackle both extreme inequality and the climate crisis if they target the excessive emissions of the richest and invest in poor and vulnerable communities. For example, a recent study found that the richest 10 per cent of households use almost half (45 per cent) of all the energy linked to land transport and three-quarters of all energy linked to aviation. Transportation accounts for around a quarter of global emissions today, while SUVs were the second biggest driver of global carbon emissions growth between 2010 and 2018.

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 public services and low carbon sectors to create jobs, and help end poverty,” added Gore.


For more information or to arrange an interview please contact:

Kelsey-Rae Taylor | | +64 21 298 9854

Notes to editor

The media brief ‘Confronting Carbon Inequality’ and the full research report and data on which is it based is available here.

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

In 2015, around half the emissions of the richest 10 per cent – people with net income over $38,000 – are linked to citizens in the US and the EU and around a fifth with citizens of China and India. Over a third of the emissions of the richest one per cent – 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. Net incomes are based on income thresholds for 2015 and represented in $ 2011 PPP (purchasing power parity).

The research is based on estimations of consumption emissions from fossil fuels, i.e. emissions consumed within a country, including emissions embodied in imports and 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 and until a maximum emissions ceiling. National household consumption emissions estimates – for 117 countries from 1990 to 2015 – are then sorted into a global distribution according to income. More details on the methodology are available in the research report.

The Stockholm Environment Institute is an international non-profit research and policy organisation that tackles environment and development challenges.

Oxfam is a confederation of 20 independent charitable organisations focusing on the alleviation of global poverty. 

Carbon Inequality Report

In the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, annual global carbon emissions grew by 60%, approximately doubling total global cumulative emissions. This has brought the world perilously close to exceeding 2°C of warming, and it is now on the verge of exceeding 1.5°C. This paper examines the starkly different contributions of different income groups to carbon emissions in this period. It draws on new data that provides much improved insight into global and national income inequality, combined with national consumption emissions over this 25-year period, to provide an analysis relating emissions to income levels for the populations of 117 countries. Future scenarios of carbon inequality are also presented based on different possible trajectories of economic growth and carbon emissions, highlighting the challenge of ensuring a more equitable distribution of the remaining and rapidly diminishing global carbon budget.

PDF icon Click here to read ‘The Carbon Inequality Report’ Report

PDF icon Click here for the ‘Media Brief – Confronting Carbon Inequality’