climate change equality social justice

Why emissions cuts start with the richest

In order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C, global carbon emissions need to be dramatically reduced. And it is the richest who need to reduce them the furthest.

This is well illustrated by a new briefing released by Oxfam today.

In the graph below, which I have simplified slightly from their report, we see the consumption emissions of global income groups – the richest 1% and 10%, the 40% in the middle, and the poorest 50%.

The carbon emissions of the world’s wealthiest people are vastly greater than the poorest. This shows no sign of changing any time soon. The figures are provided for 1990, 2015, and a projection for 2030. As things stand, the richest 1% will not have significantly reduced their footprints.

We shouldn’t let the obscenely high footprints of the 1% distract us from the 10% either. If you’re reading this, it is likely that you are within that 10% income group. I know I am. Your footprint may be lower than the average, but it’s likely to still be above a 1.5 compatible share.

The target share is marked by the black line. By 2030, it will be 2.3 tonnes of carbon per person per year. The poorest half of humanity will be well below it. The global middle class are likely to have carbon footprints around twice that. The richest will have a long way to go. The 1% may have footprints 30 times higher than what is sustainable for 1.5 degrees – the huge ’emissions gap’ marked by the red arrows above.

This is why I harp on about different responsibilities, and object to universalising narratives that talk about humanity as one common ‘us’ (like David Attenborough‘s programmes or the recent Earthshot book do.) As the Oxfam graph shows, a whole half of humanity has a very low carbon footprint. It’s the richest who need to act.

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