Human beings release billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. However, a recent study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, ensures that these emissions are produced disproportionately by the richest people in the world.
Until now, to assess a person’s contribution to global warming, researchers have focused on emissions from goods and services. However, Lucas Chancel, a member of the World Inequality Laboratory of the Paris School of Economics (France) and the sole author of the research, included an update of the method used and obtained new results.
In his research, he incorporated a person’s financial investments into their carbon footprint. This allows greater precision in the figures and better monitoring of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to Chancel, the rich produce more CO2 because they invest in companies that work, for example, with fossil fuels.
Quarter of emissions
The researcher focused his studies on between 1990 and 2019 and his findings reveal that the richest 1% in the world generated a quarter of GHG emissions. “Economic inequality within countries continues to drive a lot of the dynamics that we see in terms of pollution,” Chancel told Carbon Brief.
In fact, another study in the journal Nature Sustainability suggests that a person in sub-Saharan Africa produces an average of 0.6 tons of carbon dioxide (tCO2) per year, while in the United States the average is 14.5 tCO2. Carbon Brief also showed that the United States alone is responsible for a fifth of all CO2 emissions since 1850.
“Growing inequality within countries has also shaped global emissions over the past three decades,” Chancel explains in his study.
To meet the limit of 1.5 degrees of global temperature increase, which was agreed in the Paris Agreement, average global emissions per capita must fall to 1.9 tCO2e by 2050. However, these achievements will not be possible. if, for example, in the United States, the 10% of the population with the highest income does not reduce its emissions by almost 90%, says the study.
One wish of the researcher is that governments begin to track the distribution of GHG emissions in their countries, as well as the way they track wealth and GDP data.
Wealth and emissions
Human beings release billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. However, these emissions are disproportionately produced by wealthier people, who tend to live more carbon-intensive lifestyles.
Recent research suggests that the average person living in sub-Saharan Africa produces 0.6 tons of carbon dioxide (tCO2) each year, while the average US citizen produces 14.5 tCO2. Carbon Brief analysis has also shown that the US alone is responsible for a fifth of all CO2 emissions since 1850.
The new paper uses a wealth and income inequality dataset from the World Database on Inequality to track inequality between 1990 and 2019. product” combined with data from the “distributive national accounts” project.
“In the paper, emissions associated with the formation of the capital stock (for example, the construction of buildings or machines) are attributed to those who own or invest in that stock,” Chancel explained on Twitter. “Relevance: While liability can be thought of in many ways, it is very difficult to argue that owners of capital are not responsible for pollution and consumers are responsible for all of it. Until now, this was the view implicit in many analyzes of carbon footprint inequality.”
When investments were taken into account, it turned out that these were the main contributors to the emissions of the richest one per cent between 1990 and 2019. In addition, the emissions per capita of the richest one per cent grew by 26 per cent during the period of study and the emissions per capita of the top 0.01 per cent increased by 80 per cent.
Carbon dioxide equivalent
Significant emissions gaps still exist between the average person in rich and poor countries. To meet the goals of the Paris agreement and keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, average per capita emissions must fall to 1.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050 from the current six tons, according to the study. Another study reported by Carbon Brief found that the average person living in sub-Saharan Africa falls short of this goal by 0.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year, while the average US resident emits 14.5 tons.
However, the paper did record a major shift between emissions inequality in the 1900s and today. Some 30 years ago, 62% of emissions inequality was due to differences between countries. Now about the same amount of inequality is due to differences within countries.
“To be clear: this does not mean that important inequalities in emissions between countries and regions have disappeared,” Chancel wrote. “Rather, it means that in addition to the large international inequality in carbon emissions, there are also even larger emission inequalities between individuals within countries.”
To put these results in context, Chancel compares current emissions with those needed to limit warming to 1.5°C or 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
The graph below shows the average carbon footprints in different regions of the world in 2019 and the average global emissions needed to limit warming to 1.5°C or 2°C, assuming emissions are divided evenly among the world’s population.
The document has important implications for equitable climate policy making. For example, it revealed that the bottom 50% of the US population actually lives close to the 2030 per capita emissions target set by their government under the Paris agreement, while the top 10% would need to reduce emissions by 86%. In India and China, 90% of the population remain below the 2030 target, but the top 10% are already above it.
“It appears that climate policies in recent decades have often targeted low-income groups and low emitters disproportionately, while large emitters remain unaffected,” Chancel wrote.
Inequality between countries
The gap between rich and poor is due less to inequality between countries than to inequality within countries, particularly rich countries, the researchers concluded. While the top 1 per cent globally saw their emissions grow 26 per cent over the study period, emissions actually fell 5 to 15 per cent among low- and middle-income people in wealthy nations.
Chancel said: “Economic inequality within countries continues to drive many of the dynamics that we see in terms of pollution.”