The difference between the carbon emissions of rich and poor within a country is now greater than the differences in emissions between countries, according to the data.
The discovery is further evidence of the growing gap between the ‘polluting elite’ of the wealthy in the world and relatively low responsibility for emissions among the rest of the population.
It also shows that there is plenty of room for the world’s poorest to increase their greenhouse gas emissions if necessary to achieve prosperity, if the world’s rich – including some in developing countries – reduce theirs, according to the analysis.
Most global climate policies have focused on the difference between developed and developing countries, and their current and historical responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. But a growing body of work suggests that a ‘polluting elite’ among the world’s highest earners far exceed the emissions of the poor.
This has profound implications for climate action, as it shows that low-income people in developed countries are contributing less to the climate crisis, while the wealthy in developing countries have much larger carbon footprints than previously recognized.
In a report titled Climate Inequality Report 2023, economists from the World Inequality Lab dissect where carbon emissions are currently coming from. The World Inequality Lab is co-directed by the influential economist Thomas Piquettythe author of Capital in the Twenty-first Century, whose work after the financial crisis more than a decade ago helped popularize the idea of the “1%”, a global high-income group whose interests are favored by current economic systems.
The report found that “carbon inequalities within countries now appear to be larger than carbon inequalities between countries. The consumption and investment habits of a relatively small group of the population directly or indirectly contribute disproportionately to greenhouse gases. While emissions inequalities between countries remain large, the overall inequality in global emissions is now mainly explained by inequalities within countries according to certain indicators.
The report also found that while overseas climate aid – a key element of the recent COP27 climate negotiations – would be needed to help developing countries reduce their emissions, it would not be enough and countries developing countries also needed to reform their national tax systems to redistribute more. of the rich.
The authors suggest windfall taxes on excess profits could help fund low-carbon investments, as well as progressive taxation in countries, including developing countries, that often undertax citizens and businesses. rich.
Large emerging economies – such as China – now bear increasing responsibility for the stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the report adds. They must now produce clear plans to achieve net zero emissions.
Peter Newell, professor of international relations at the University of Sussex, who worked a lot on the question of the polluting eliteand was not involved in the report, said it showed consumption patterns needed to change to tackle the climate crisis.
“Emissions inequalities matter because carbon inequalities within countries account for most of the inequality in global carbon emissions between those who generate the emissions and those who suffer the worst effects of global warming and have the least adaptive capacity,” he said.
“Elite polluter consumption and investment patterns, which are driving these unequal contributions to climate change, need to be curtailed and reoriented, respectively. It’s a huge challenge.
But he added that the report also showed how tackling global poverty could be achieved without increasing greenhouse gas emissions overall, a key point as the world needs to cut emissions by around half of by 2030 to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C above the pre-industrial era. levels.
Newell told the Guardian: “[The report shows that] the fight against global poverty will not exceed global carbon budgets, as is often claimed. Ignoring the power and privileges of the polluting elite will do it. These are linked because reducing carbon consumption at the top can free up carbon space to lift people out of poverty.
The solutions, he said, lay in changing government policy to focus on the polluting elite and designing a more equitable — and efficient — approach to emissions reductions.
“The combination of progressive taxation, including on highly polluting activities, and the redeployment of fossil fuel subsidies can help strengthen the welfare state and provide social protection to help fill some of these gaps,” said he declared.
“This critical report underscores once again the need for a just transition to a low-carbon economy, which reflects unequal responsibility for causing the climate crisis and unequal ability to address it.”
Last year an article by the PIK Potsdam Institute for Climate Researchco-authored by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, found that taxing the wealthy was one of the best ways to fund the shift to a low-carbon economy.