Should the rich be allowed to exhaust the world's 'carbon budget'?

Flames from the Glass Fire consume the Glass Mountain Inn, late Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in St. Helena, California, USA. (Keystone/AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Last week Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute released new research showing that the 10% richest is fast exhausting the remaining “carbon budget” left for the world to limit global temperature increase at +1.5 or 2°C. More specifically, the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population were responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorer half of the world from 1990 to 2015. Because of their over-consumption habits linked to air and land transport, but also housing and manufactured goods, the footprints per capita of the richest 1% are currently around 35 times higher than the average individual target for 2030 in respect to the 1.5°C pathway, and more than 100 times higher than the poorest 50%.

Confronting Carbon Inequality: Putting climate justice at the heart of the  COVID-19 recovery

In the report’s introduction, Ban Ki-moon, Deputy Chair of The Elders, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, summarizes :

The COVID-19 pandemic provides an incontestable imperative to rebuild better and place the global economy on a more sustainable, resilient and fairer footing. Addressing the disproportionate carbon emissions from the wealthiest in society must be a key priority as part of this collective commitment.

A remaining carbon budget fast being squandered. From today onwards, the world can only emit 645 gigatons of carbon dioxide until it exceeds the level of accumulated carbon to reach 2°C warming. At the current rate of emissions, that will be in 16 years. Already, the 10% richest have sucked up 31% of the “budget” since 1990 to the Paris agreement threshold, the middle 40% a quarter and the poorer half of the world population only 4%. The inequality is such that the higher income group alone would fully deplete the remaining “budget” by just a few years later, even if everyone else's emissions dropped to zero tomorrow. Says Tim Gore, head of policy and advocacy at Oxfam International:

The global carbon budget has been squandered to expand the consumption of the already rich, rather than to improve humanity.

Sweden's SEI, Oxfam tie carbon emissions to world's wealthy

Why it matters. Just as wealth is concentrated, so are carbon emissions. This is true at the level of countries - the G20 are responsible for around 80% of emissions. And at the level of income groups across societies. While the world is struggling to reduce CO2 emissions, the briefing raises the critical question of social justice in regards to how the remaining emissions - and therefore income and energy - could be better distributed for humanity instead of supporting the consumption habits of the rich few. It explains why extreme carbon inequality must be confronted to fight the climate crisis.

Two groups are particularly affected by this state of affairs: the poorer and marginalized people already struggling with climate impacts today, but also future generations that will inherit a depleted carbon budget as well as a climate breakdown. The Covid pandemic has shown that “once unthinkable changes to the lifestyles of the richest in society can be adopted in the interests of all”. With more efforts to be made in the future, should they not be proportionate to responsibilities? Oxfam:

Governments must use this historic juncture to build fairer economies within the limits our planet can bear. Public policies – from taxing luxury carbon like SUVs, frequent business class flights and private jets, to expanding digital and public transport infrastructure – can cut emissions, reduce inequality and boost public health. But to do so before the carbon budget for 1.5C is totally depleted, they must happen now.

What the facts are:

The Carbon Inequality Era. The carbon emissions of the richest 1%… | by  Oxfam International | Sep, 2020 | Medium

  • The richest 1% (63 million people) alone were responsible for 15% of cumulative emissions since 1990, and 9% of the carbon budget – twice as much as the poorest half of the world’s population.

  • The richest 5% (315 million people) were responsible for over a third (37%) of the total growth in emissions, while the total growth in emissions of the richest 1% was three times that of the poorest 50%.

  • The richest 10% of the world’s population (630 million people) were responsible for 52% of the cumulative carbon emissions – depleting the global carbon budget by nearly a third (31%) in those 25 years alone.

The poorest 50% (3.1 billion people) were responsible for just 7% of cumulative emissions, and used just 4% of the available carbon budget.

A campaign photo by Oxfam

The bottomline. How great the portion of emissions growth that can be attributed to the “addictive” consumption habits of the richest was underestimated until now: a staggering 37% just for the richest 5%. In a world where low-taxed profits are generally privatized to the benefit of few and where liabilities or debts are easily mutualized in a common pot - as the 2008 financial crisis illustrated well - the risk with the climate bill is that it simply gets transferred to the public irrespective of people’s active contribution to emissions, at the expense of the middle and lower income segments. But as Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute demonstrate, adressing the fossil fuel driven consumption trends of the richer income group of the world - and the richest in greater proportion given their outstanding contribution to carbon emissions - is the only way forward to limit the worst effects of the planetary emergency. Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Congress, concludes:

The manifest refusal of leaders to deal with massive inequality stands in the way of urgently needed climate ambition. We need a Just Transition, for workers, their families and communities at all levels, from the work floor, in economic sectors, at the national level and at the global climate negotiations. We need climate justice and a voice at the table for those most affected by the climate emergency.