climate change

Climate change has a 1% too

Kevin Anderson is one of Britain’s leading climate scientists. I was reading one of his papers this week, and found an observation that’s worth passing on: global carbon emissions is subject to the same kind of 1% / 99% dynamic that is often pointed out in talking about financial power.

Consider Pareto’s 80-20 rule, which states that 80 per cent of something relates to 20 per cent of those involved – a surprisingly useful and robust rule of thumb. Applied to climate change this would mean that 80 per cent of emissions derive from roughly 20% per cent of the population. This relationship holds fairly well within different nations as well as globally. What if we then look at the 20 per cent group and apply Pareto to them – and then repeat the process again? What we find is that about 50 per cent of the world’s emissions come from about 1 per cent of the world population.

Anderson admits that this is very rough. It could be that we’re talking about 2 or 3 per cent, responsible for 40 – 60 per cent of emissions. That accuracy is not vital. The point is that if it is possible to identify a specific, and relatively small, group of people who are responsible for most of the world’s emissions, then policy can be tailored accordingly. We are talking, for the most part, about affluent Western consumers, along with the richest in developing countries.

Before anyone raises it, Anderson points out that a rapidly growing China doesn’t necessarily do much to change the equation. ‘Average’ Chinese emissions are misleading here, since there are still many poor people as well as a high consuming middle class. It will still be 20 years, he suggests, before the ‘mode’ – the normal person – has a Western lifestyle. And that is too late to make much difference to preventing dangerous climate change.

Another way to look at it is that, as things stand, the majority of the world’s population doesn’t actually need to act on climate change. They will need to be aware of it in the medium and long term, but those with problematically oversized carbon footprints are a pretty small segment. Rather than making that a matter for finger pointing, I think that makes the climate change 1% idea a hopeful one, even if it does land us with significant responsibility.

The question is: Are we, the wealthy ‘few per cent’ – sufficiently concerned to pass the necessary legislation and make substantial personal sacrifices and changes to our lifestyles now in order to help the rest of the population and future generations?


  1. I’ve looked for Prof Anderson’s figures for this claim, and unfortunately (because I really like much of what he has to say), that particular figure seems to be based purely on the 80-20 “rule” (which as he says is a rule of thumb, not a rule) rather than empirical data. The best I’ve found (which is a few years out of date and still pretty rough) is that 50% of emissions come from the wealthiest 7% of the population, while the poorest 50% are responsible for only about 7%.

    1. Though of course much depends on how you attribute responsibility for emissions. Do politicians who accept legal bribes from vested interests and so vote to maintain those interests bear responsibility for more emissions than just those from their personal consumption? Do the CEOs of those companies who set the tone and policy direction under which the firm hires lobbyists to sway the politicians bear more responsibility than just the emissions from their personal consumption? Do the scientists working on developing new technologies to gain access to previously unusable non-conventional fossil fuels bear more responsibility than just the emissions from their personal consumption?

    2. I must admit I didn’t think they passed the ‘smell’ test. Worrying that “one of Britain’s leading climate scientists” makes such a sloppy mistake.

  2. Jeremy:
    Rule of thumb climate accounting seems worthwhile. Thanks for offering it.
    We need not debate such overwhelming evidence for blame but rather as a productive strategy to keep fossil fuel out of our atmosphere. Sketching out where to direct our effort – societal, technological and personal – as other nations develop apace makes sense. Both an elite or common individual of a wealthy or emerging nation have, quite literally, everything to lose and everything to gain in a more stable climate. In fact, all win or all lose in this unprecedented crisis of our human evolution.

  3. To be fair to Anderson, his point is a broad one – that we do not need to despair in the face of a global challenge. We don’t have seven billion minds to change today. We can focus on the top emitters.

    Also worth pointing out that he suggests policies aimed at the very top 2 or 3% and slightly different policies aimed at a top 10% – so that 7% that you’ve worked out is catered for Byron.

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