The World's Richest 10% Emit up to 43% of the Carbon

Study finds rich people produce more CO2 emissions – we need sufficiency, not efficiency.

A giant Jeep crushes the verdant landscape
A giant Jeep crushes the verdant landscape.

Lloyd Alter 

There are two ways to think about carbon emissions; one is production, which measures the CO2 emissions of each country (and where most nations have agreed to reductions under the Paris Accord).

But if I buy a Haier air conditioner or a Samsung washing machine, who is responsible for all of the upfront carbon emissions that came from manufacturing them, or the raw materials that went into them? Should it accrue to China and South Korea or to me in North America? After all, they are making the stuff that I want and I am buying. That's why measuring consumption is, I believe, a more sensible method of accounting for carbon emissions.

Follow the Money

A new study, Scientists’ warning on affluence, demonstrates what a big problem our increasing consumption actually is. Even as our homes and cars become more efficient, we buy more and bigger stuff. Study authors Thomas Wiedman, Julia K. Steinberger, Manfred Lenzen, and Lorenz Keyßer blame the rich:

The affluent citizens of the world are responsible for most environmental impacts and are central to any future prospect of retreating to safer environmental conditions. Any transition towards sustainability can only be effective if far-reaching lifestyle changes complement technological advancements.

The authors note (as we do in our 1.5 degree lifestyle series) that "consumers are the ultimate drivers of production, with their purchasing decisions setting in motion a series of trade transactions and production activities, rippling along complex international supply-chain networks." It isn't the entire picture; the consumers do not have control of the choices made by the manufacturers, and one South Korean clothes dryer can be a lot greener than the next, both in its manufacture and its operation. But the consumer is the one who makes the decision to buy a dryer in the first place, or whether just to use a clothesline.

increases in wealth vs carbon
GDP and manufacturing are going up faster than carbon.  From study

In fact, as this graph shows, there has been some progress in reducing the carbon intensity of what we do; the Global GDP and the Global Material Footprint (equal to all our material extraction) is diverging a bit from the CO2 FFI (fossil fuel and industrial processes) but being more carbon-efficient isn't enough; it is still going up. It has to go down.

The problem is that the world is getting richer, and when people get money they buy stuff. They travel. Consumption is a direct result of affluence, and CO2 is a direct result of consumption. The authors note:

Since income is strongly linked with consumption, and consumption is in turn linked with impact we can expect existing income inequalities to translate into equally significant impact inequalities.... the world’s top 10% of income earners are responsible for between 25 and 43% of environmental impact. In contrast, the world’s bottom 10% income earners exert only around 3–5% of environmental impact. These findings mean that environmental impact is to a large extent caused and driven by the world’s rich citizens.

At the extremes, the numbers are even more outrageous:

The wealthiest 0.54%, about 40 million people, are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50% of income earners, almost 4 billion people, only emit around 10%. 

Simply greening our manufacturing or changing our fuel sources doesn't change the larger picture, that "the worldwide growth in affluence has consistently outpaced these gains, driving all the impacts back up."

Reduce Consumption, Don't Just "Green" It

The authors conclude that the only way to address the issue is by reducing consumption, "not just greening it."

Avoiding consumption means not consuming certain goods and services, from living space (overly large homes, secondary residences of the wealthy) to oversized vehicles, environmentally damaging and wasteful food, leisure patterns and work patterns involving driving and flying.

The events of 2020 really put paid to Elizabeth Warren's idea that "70% of the pollution, of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air, comes from three industries." (Those being the building industry, the electric power industry, and the oil industry.) When we stopped consuming, they all started emitting less and big fracking players like Chesapeake went bust. A lot of airlines and builders are going to follow. Kill consumption and you kill emissions.

Among other things that the authors point out is the need for "the adoption of less affluent, simpler and sufficiency-oriented lifestyles to address overconsumption – consuming better but less."

Sufficiency Before Efficiency

The Future we Want
The future we want: teslas, powerwalls, solar shingles. Screen capture of Elon Musk

Sufficiency is a subject dear to our Treehugger hearts, but as I have often noted, it is a tough sell; rich people would rather have solar shingles, powerwalls, and electric cars, when a sufficient lifestyle would be very different.

Sufficiency vs efficiency is what we have been talking about on Treehugger for years; live in smaller spaces, in walkable neighborhoods where you can bike instead of drive. Our posts on Teslas are more popular.

The study authors call for radical change, to "strengthen equality and redistribution through suitable taxation policies, basic income, and job guarantees and by setting maximum income levels, expanding public services and rolling back neoliberal reforms." This is also a tough sell. In their summary article in The Conversation titled Affluence is killing the planet, warn scientists the authors are less radical and more Treehugger:

Ultimately, the goal is to establish economies and societies that protect the climate and ecosystems and enrich people with more wellbeing, health and happiness instead of more money.

There are a number of ways to get people to reduce their consumption and carbon emissions; global pandemics have been shown to work well, as do depressions and economic collapse. The authors are pointing to a Wellbeing Economy, but I like to direct our attention to a sufficiency economy, like the kind you get when people live a 1.5 degree lifestyle. It's better than the alternatives.