The 10 per cent most polluting people in society are responsible for almost half of the annual greenhouse gas emissions behind climate change, creating a “strong incentive” for policies targeting the elite group, a UN-backed report has concluded.
The sweeping research, by a Paris-based group led by the economist Thomas Piketty, examined the unequal effects of climate change and also found that the top 1 per cent of global emitters were responsible for nearly a quarter of the total growth in pollution between 1990 and 2019.
“Carbon inequalities” within countries were now greater than those between countries, said the researchers from the World Inequality Lab.
“Within-country carbon inequality now makes up the bulk of global emissions inequality, that is about two-thirds of the total, an almost complete reversal as compared to 1990,” it concluded.
As an example, the top 10 per cent of emitters in China were directly or indirectly responsible for almost 38 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per person, exceeding the emissions of the top emitters in many high-income countries, the report said.
At the same time, the bottom 50 per cent of the Chinese population had a carbon footprint of less than 3t CO2e. This meant that the poorer half of the Chinese population generated only 17 per cent of its total carbon emissions, while the top emitters were responsible for almost half of them.
The concentration of emissions created a “strong incentive for policies” targeting the most polluting individuals, such as wealth taxes, said the report, which was supported by the United Nations Development Programme.
“All individuals contribute to emissions, but not in the same way . . . In addition to an obvious equity concern, there appears to be an efficiency question at stake,” the report said.
Despite the increasing urgency of tackling climate change and the sequence of extreme weather events that devastated countries last year, global greenhouse gas emissions have remained stubbornly high.
In October, the UN’s leading environmental body said national emissions reduction pledges put the world on track for warming of between 2.4C and 2.6C by 2100. The Paris Agreement binds the almost 200 signatory countries to strive to limit warming to 1.5C, ideally.
Global inflation and a worsening cost of living crisis, meanwhile, has put the issue of growing inequality within countries front of mind in many places, including the UK and US.
Sub-Saharan Africa was the only region where average per capita emissions presently “meet the 1.5C target,” the report found.
The concentration of emissions among a small section of the global population also meant that ending global poverty was not incompatible with rapidly slashing emissions, it said.
The so-called “carbon budgets”, or emissions limit, needed to bring everyone above the $5.50 per day poverty line were roughly equal to a third of the emissions from the top 10 per cent of people, the report estimated.
The World Bank said in a 2020 report that it estimated that up to 132mn people would be pushed into extreme poverty by climate change by 2030.
The latest report from the looked at the emissions of individuals and factored the pollution from goods and services into the carbon footprints of the people who consumed them.
For there to be rapid change without harming the most vulnerable, a “profound transformation” of national and international tax regimes was required, the researchers said.
For instance, a global “1.5 per cent” wealth tax on the world’s richest individuals could raise billions of dollars to help the most vulnerable groups shift to green energy, estimated at $175bn annually if implemented in the US and Europe, the report says.
The removal of fossil fuel subsidies could also “free up considerable resources for more socially targeted adaptive measures,” though such changes needed to be paired with social reforms and assistance to protect the poorest from possible fuel price hikes, they said.
A barrier to such measures was the lack of reliable data about the unequal distribution of emissions within and between countries, the researchers said. Policymakers should invest in better collection and understanding of such data to develop effective and targeted policies, they said.
The effects of warming are also uneven, with low and middle income countries often more exposed and less able to cope with disasters, such as floods and fires, than the rich nations that bear a greater historic responsibility for climate change.
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