The Rich Are Different From You and Me; They Emit Way More Carbon

A new study shows a shocking disparity in carbon footprints between the rich and the poor.

a wealthy couple with luggage stand in airport hanger in front of private plane jet

Hans Neleman / Getty Images

Some readers were outraged at our recent coverage of a study, "Scientists’ warning on affluence," which could be summarized in a few words: “Consumption is a direct result of affluence, and CO2 is a direct result of consumption.” So please consider this a trigger warning: Another new study, "The unequal distribution of household carbon footprints in Europe and its link to sustainability," looks at the wild disparity in carbon emissions between the rich and the poor, even in the "socialist" European Union.

The authors, Diana Ivanova and Richard Wood, start from the same position that we do with our 1.5-degree lifestyle: that if we are going to keep the average warming of the planet below 1.5 degrees, then we have to reduce our per-capita emissions to 2.5 tonnes by 2030. Worldwide, the average now is 3.4 tCO 2eq/cap (Tonnes CO2 equivalent per capita, which we will just call tonnes). However, the rich produce a lot more carbon; a super-rich household pushes out about 130 tonnes. There might not be many of them, but their impact is huge. The not so super-rich, the top 10% of GHG (greenhouse gas) emitters make up 34–45% of annual GHG emissions globally.

It's Up in the Air

Flying is the biggest individual carbon source for the rich
Flying is the biggest individual carbon source for the rich. CC2.0  Ianova and Wood

But what is really extraordinary is how the rich generate their carbon – of the 43.1 tonnes that the average Euro one-percenter generates per year, 22.6 tonnes is from flying. Among the top 10%, land travel dominates, generating 32% of their carbon footprint. And this is all in Europe; imagine what the numbers might be in North America where the driving and flying distances are so much greater.

The authors conclude that more attention should be paid to the issues of emissions from air and land transport, and to the fairness and equity of it all.

The EU top 1% emit 55 tCO2 eq/cap on average, more than 22 times the 2.5-tonne target. Aviation particularly stands out, with a substantial carbon contribution and the highest expenditure elasticities for the highest emitters. The EU top 1% of households have an average CF share associated with air travel of 41%, making air travel the consumption category with the highest carbon contribution among the top emitters. Package holidays and air transport are luxury items with high energy intensity... This lack of policy focus on high-carbon polluting activities of high-income actors – who have both high responsibility and capacity for climate change mitigation – raises substantial ethical and equity concerns.

And notwithstanding all those trains and bikes,

Land travel drives 21% and 32% of the average CF of the EU top 1% and top 10% of households, respectively. Radical emission reductions in this category require decreases in the number of vehicles and travel distance and the shift to low-carbon transport modes. Research on car dependence exposes the difficulty of moving away from a car-dominated, high-carbon transport system and draws attention to the political-economic factors underpinning that dependence.
individual emissions
individual emissions. Ivanova and Wood 

Now, this is where some readers will call us commies again, but the fact remains that even in a wealthy, developed part of the world like EU that many of our readers would dismiss as socialist, the top 10% emit more carbon than the bottom 50%, and so much of it is from driving and that most elastic source of carbon emissions, flying. Yet jet fuel isn't even taxed, a giant subsidy to the rich; essentially, conspicuous consumption is being encouraged. The authors do not get all Eat the Rich on us, but do have recommendations for changing the lifestyles of the rich and famous:

There is robust evidence that overconsumption and materialistic practices are not only damaging for the environment but may also reduce psychological well-being... Redesigning consumption practices, public spaces, and social structures through voluntary simplicity and sharing may reconcile lower carbon emissions and higher well-being. Collective solutions and investment in social infrastructure hold potential to deliver the social services necessary for human well-being in coherence with the principles of equity, efficiency, solidarity, and sustainability.

In other words, spending less is good for your health, your community, and your carbon footprint. Don't eat the rich, just share their lunch.

This is not the first time we have noted this; see also The World's Richest 10% Emit up to 43% of the Carbon and Are the Rich Responsible for Climate Change?