The richest one percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the 3 billion people who made up the poorest half of humanity during a critical 25-year period of unprecedented emissions growth, according to a new Oxfam report released today.
Oxfam’s 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 over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fueling the climate crisis, yet it is poor communities and young people who are paying the price,” said Tim Gore, Head of Climate Policy at Oxfam and author of the report. “Such extreme carbon inequality is a direct consequence of our governments decades long pursuit of grossly unequal and carbon intensive economic growth.”
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 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 1.5C 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 1.5C – the goal set by governments in the Paris Agreement to avoid the very worst impacts of uncontrolled climate change.
- Annual emissions grew by 60 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.
Carbon emissions are likely to rapidly rebound as governments ease COVID 19-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 percent would blow the carbon budget by 2033 even if all other emissions were cut to zero.
During 2020, and with around 1C of global heating, climate change has fueled 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. While no one is immune, 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.
‘Confronting Carbon Inequality’ 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 1.5C of warming – this is equivalent to 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.
“Simply rebooting our outdated, unfair, and polluting pre-COVID19 economies is no longer a viable option,” continued Gore. “Governments must seize this opportunity to reshape our economies and build a better tomorrow for us all.”
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, according to Oxfam. For example, a recent study found that the richest 10 percent of households use almost half (45 percent) 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.
“Governments must curb the emissions of the wealthy through taxes and bans on luxury carbon such as SUVs and frequent flights,” concluded Gore. “Revenues should be invested in public services and low carbon sectors to create jobs, and help end poverty.”
Notes to editor
An embargoed copy of the media brief ‘Confronting Carbon Inequality’ and the full research report and data on which is it based are available upon request.
The poorest 50 percent of humanity comprised approximately 3.1 billion people on average between 1990 and 2015, the richest 10 percent comprised approx. 630 million people, the richest 5 percent approx. 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 with 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. 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 is available in the research report.