Is having too much money also a sin?
This is the foundational idea for global climate politics. Countries that are richer through emitting greenhouse gases will have the responsibility to cut emissions faster and spend money to help poorer countries adapt.
This made sense in the early days of climate diplomacy. Back in the 1990s, almost two-thirds of the emissions disparity could be explained by national pollution ratings. But after three decades of rising income inequality around the world, what if the gap between countries is no longer the best way to explain the problem?
There is growing evidence that the disparities in emissions between rich and poor within countries outweigh national disparities. In other words, high emitters can be anywhere, not necessarily rich or poor countries.
Analysts from the World Inequality Laboratory (WIL) led by the Paris School of Economics and the University of California at Berkeley recently offered an alternative measure. This alternative approach focuses more on different measures of consumer income rather than GDP.
As it turns out, individual wealth can account for more emissions than the wealth of an entire country. Therefore, climate progress means limiting the carbon emissions of the rich first.
Disparities across countries continue to widen.
Researchers at WIL collected a wide range of data, from diet to car ownership, stock market investments and global trade to estimate an individual’s carbon footprint.
According to Oxfam, the top 10% of polluters, or about 770 million people, roughly equal to the population of Europe, are among the wealthiest people in the world. They are the ones who earn more than 38,000 USD per year.
This trend is very clear. Emissions often increase with wealth. The richest 1% of people in the world, or 60 million people in the world, earn $109,000 per year. They are also by far the fastest source of emissions. These people live all over the world, with about 37% in the US and more than 4.5% in Brazil and China.
The rich and the poor pollute differently
As people get richer, their diets tend to diversify and increase meat consumption. The world would need a Second Earth if everyone had the same diet as Australians and Britons.
According to the USDA in 2019, the average American eats about 24kg of beef, the most carbon-emitting meat. According to an industry website, families in Argentina and Uruguay consume more than that, and this is where most of the cattle are raised. In addition, the growing middle class in countries like China and South Africa are also eating more meat than ever before.
The higher the income distribution, the exponentially more emissions will increase. The most polluting property is yachts, which saw sales jump 77% in 2021.
According to WIL, an 11-minute flight into space like that of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos emits more carbon than the world’s poorest person emits in a lifetime.
One-tenth of all flights departing from France in 2019 were private planes. In just four hours, these private jets produce as much carbon dioxide as the average person in Europe emits a year. According to market analysis by Boeing, 4 out of 5 people in the world have never set foot on an airplane in their lifetime.
Meanwhile, owning a car is one of the fastest ways to increase an individual’s carbon footprint. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), SUVs were the biggest contributor to the increase in global carbon emissions from 2010-2018.
In the US, about 84 cars are on the road for every 100 people. Meanwhile in India, that number is 24 cars. But within a country there are also deep divisions. In São Paulo, more than two-thirds of men in the poorest 10% walk or cycle to work, and they emit zero carbon. That car-free lifestyle holds true for only about 10% of the richest 10% of Brazilian city dwellers, according to a 2016 study.
When it comes to energy consumption, the difference can be even more pronounced. The average person in Nigeria uses about half as much electricity in a year as a high-definition television in the US.
Private flights emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide.
The rich play an important role in influencing the climate
The large gap between high and low emission sources suggests that country-centred approaches to carbon reduction currently need to be reexamined.
Lucas Chancel, a researcher at the Paris School of Economics, points to a carbon tax as an example. That policy is deployed in many places as an evasive measure. That is, the poor pay more as a percentage of their income.
As more and more poor people can afford to buy cars, fly planes, eat more meat and experience high-carbon lifestyles, the main obstacles to cutting emissions will increase.
Chancel said: “There’s a window of opportunity for a few years before things get out of control. If we miss this opportunity, things socially will be more complicated. Carbon policy will be out of focus. focus on the elite group too. It will spread and affect the entire population.”
As consumers and investors, the choices of the rich can have a big impact, especially on transport and housing. Only 1% of the world’s population is responsible for half of aviation emissions. Cars are the largest source of emissions per capita in the US and the second largest in Europe.
To change that and many other things requires social norms to change. But creating demand for low-emission products like electric vehicles and heat pumps could help create a zero-carbon path for others in the world to enter the middle class.
Just as companies refuse to act to push governments to do more on climate, the rich don’t use their full influence as directors or board members. board of directors.
“If you’re in the top 10 percent of people, you have the most power and ability to help make it happen,” said Kimberly Nicholas, professor of sustainability science at Lund University and author of Nature Energy. those systemic changes”.
WIL data shows that the world’s richest 0.001% have such great responsibility that their decisions can have the same climate impact as policy interventions across the country.
Together, the top 10% of the world’s emitters produce more than four times more carbon than the global average. They are still a significant source of emissions for global warming, although many of them have experienced significant emissions reductions between 1990-2019.
Meanwhile, 65% of the least polluting people already have a steady income, so emissions go up. But they still only play a relatively small part in global warming. A study in February found that lifting hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty would increase global emissions by less than 1%.
The authors of a 2020 Nature Communications paper wrote that many people don’t see themselves as part of the problem but rely on government, technology or businesses. But the authors conclude that it is each person who is the key to solving the problem, because governments or companies are also made by people. If people don’t change, the organization won’t change either.
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