Carbon Inequality Projected to Get Worse by 2030

The share of emissions from the richest 1% is increasing.

Dogs getting on jet

Istock/ Getty Images

Whenever you see my favorite stock photo of puppies flying private, consider it a trigger warning for yet another study looking at the carbon footprint of the rich. The latest one, "Carbon inequality in 2030: Per capita consumption emissions and the 1.5⁰C goal," issued in time for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), is from Tim Gore of The Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) and was commissioned by OXFAM, which was responsible for some of the earlier work on the subject.

The news briefing uses consumption-based accounting, which estimates per capita household consumption and an individual's share of national consumption, and compares this to the per capita consumption required by 2030 to keep global heating below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), which works out to 2.5 metric tonnes of carbon per year per person—what I have called living the 1.5-degree lifestyle.

Figure 1 showing different per capita footprints

IEEP/OXFAM

The study looks at the per capita consumption of global income groups and finds the richest 1% (about 80 million very rich people) has actually increased their emissions by 25% since 1990 and is likely going to just decrease a bit to 67.7 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per capita by 2030—about 27 times the 2.5 metric tonne average target.

This includes the footprint of the mega-rich, the top one-tenth of the 1%. Richard Wilk and Beatriz Barros of Indiana University studied public records "to document billionaires’ houses, vehicles, aircraft and yachts." According to the brief: "Applying carbon coefficients, [Wilk and Barros] found billionaire carbon footprints easily run to thousands of tonnes per year, with superyachts the biggest contributor, each adding around 7,000 tonnes per year, for example."

"Earlier studies also established the major contribution to carbon footprints of the rich and famous from flights, especially via private jets. Gösling’s study constructed aviation emissions estimates based on tracking the international travel of celebrities via their social media postings. Footprints – from aviation alone – were found to be in excess of a thousand tonnes per year. Most egregiously, 2021 has heralded the dawn of a new form of hyper-carbon-intensive luxury travel, space tourism, in which hundreds of tonnes of carbon can be burned in just a ten-minute flight for around four passengers."

Yes, space tourism is egregious, but its total carbon footprint is trivial because so few people will ever do it. Nonetheless, The Guardian goes all Eat the Rich and quotes study author Gore:

“To close the emissions gap by 2030, it is necessary for governments to target measures at their richest, highest emitters – the climate and inequality crises should be tackled together. That includes both measures to constrain luxury carbon consumption like mega yachts, private jets and space travel, and to curb climate-intensive investments like stock-holdings in fossil fuel industries."
consumption various groups

IEEP/OXFAM


But Gore's own numbers tell a different story. The real problem lies with you and me and the 800 million people in the developed world, in the richest 10%. On their own, the top 10% emit enough carbon to bust through the carbon budget limits that we have to keep under to keep below the 1.5° pathway.

Flying is the biggest individual carbon source for the rich
Flying is the biggest individual carbon source for the rich.

Ianova and Wood

As we noted in coverage of a previous study with the flying puppy photo, with the top 1%, flying is the biggest portion of their footprint. In the much larger top 10%, it is driving.

In the conclusions, Gore and the IEEP go after the super-rich.

"Undoubtedly, it is time for governments to raise major taxes on or to outright ban highly carbon-intensive luxury consumption, from SUVs to mega yachts, private jets, and space tourism, that represent a morally unjustified depletion of the world’s scarce remaining carbon budget... It is time to use regulation and taxation to end extreme wealth altogether, to protect people and the planet."
share of global emissions

IEEP/OXFAM

But again, using Gore's own data, even as the share of consumption is growing within the top 1%, it is the top 10% who are almost half of the world's emissions. The 1% might be buying the Porsches and flying private, but the rest of the 10% are buying the F-150s and the big suburban houses and filling the airplanes, and paying the bulk of the taxes.

The very rich are indeed a tasty target, but the bigger problem is what to do about the 10% that includes much of middle-class North America.

For more flying puppies, see also:

And don't read the comments. Speaking of comments, whenever I write about these issues, there are many comments about population growth being a problem. But as Professor Steinberger notes, most of the world's population growth is not happening among the 50% of the world that is emitting most of the carbon.

View Article Sources
  1. Gore, Tim. "Carbon Inequality In 2030: Per Capita Consumption Emissions and the 1.5⁰C Goal." Institute for European Environmental Policy, Oxfam, 2021, doi:10.21201/2021.8274

  2. Ivanova, Diana, and Richard Wood. "The Unequal Distribution of Household Carbon Footprints in Europe and its Link to Sustainability" Global Sustainability, 2020, doi:10.1017/sus.2020.12