Are the Rich Responsible for Climate Change?

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
CC BY 2.0. Paul Sableman on Flickr

The top 10 percent consumes 20 times more energy than the bottom 10 percent.

Commenters often complain that the root of our problem is overpopulation, and we keep responding with data from a 2015 Oxfam report that concluded that 10 percent of the world's population is responsible for 50 percent of total lifestyle carbon emissions.

Now a new study confirms it, finding "extreme disparity in the use of energy among richer and poorer people - both within countries and between them." Much of the inequality is due to transportation; researchers found that the top ten percent of consumers used 187 times as much vehicle fuel energy as the bottom ten percent, mostly on cars and holidays. According to the study's lead author, Yannick Oswald, quoted in a University of Leeds press release,

Transport-related consumption categories are among the least equal. Without reducing the energy demand of these services, either through frequent-flyer levies, promoting public transport and limiting private vehicle use, or alternative technology such as electric vehicles, the study suggests that as incomes and wealth improve, our fossil fuel consumption in transport will skyrocket.

It's all about the cars and planes; the rich may be heating bigger houses, but that 10 percent only consumes a third of the heating fuels. The study was written before the current crisis which might change a few things, but "the authors warn that without reductions in consumption and significant policy interventions, by 2050 energy footprints could double from what they were in 2011, even if energy efficiency improves." The authors do have some recommendations:

Different categories require different forms of action: energy-intensive consumption, such as flying and driving, which mostly occurs at high-incomes, could be regulated through energy taxes, for instance, while the energy footprint of heating and electricity can be reduced by massive-scale public investment programmes in housing retrofit.

The report is pretty blunt, which is why the BBC provocatively titled their story, Climate change: The rich are to blame, international study finds. It quotes another Professor who says "this study tells relatively wealthy people like us what we don’t want to hear."

The problem with the BBC's title is the definition of "rich". Many tend to think of it as the one percent. But the study talks about the top ten percent. That's almost all of us in developed countries, almost anyone who has a car or takes a vacation or owns a home. Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre gets this:

The climate issue is framed by us high emitters – the politicians, business people, journalists, academics. When we say there’s no appetite for higher taxes on flying, we mean WE don’t want to fly less. The same is true about our cars and the size our homes. We have convinced ourselves that our lives are normal, yet the numbers tell a very different story.
Per capita Lifestyle Emissions

Per capita Lifestyle Emissions/ OXFAM/CC BY 2.0

Basically, if you look at the OXFAM data, the rich aren't different from you and me, the rich ARE you and me. The really rich are off the scale, but the average American is still emitting more than 15 tonnes of CO2 per capita, and that's from our cars and our vacations and our single-family houses. Of course, at over 50 tonnes, the top ten percent of Americans (those who earn more than $118,400) are looking awfully tasty.