Economic inequality is one of the defining issues of our times. Thanks to research by Oxfam and many others, we know that inequality of income and wealth is worsening in many countries around the world, with just 62 people now holding more wealth than the poorest 3.6 billion people combined.
One dimension of this problem is rarely discussed: carbon inequality. French economists Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel have calculated the carbon footprint of people living in different countries and found huge differences. They focused in on consumers’ direct and indirect emissions (e.g. driving your car or buying imported food) instead of emissions associated with production (e.g. factories).
They estimate that in the United States in 2013, the average greenhouse gas emissions per person of the richest 1% (3 million people) was around 318 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e). Meanwhile the average emissions per person of the poorest 31 million people was 3.6 tonnes of CO2e. Piketty and Chancel found a similar disparity in lots of other countries, including Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Mexico, India, Indonesia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
In December, Oxfam published a report on “Extreme Carbon Inequality” with similar findings. Globally, they estimated that the “average footprint of someone in the richest 1% could be 175 times that of someone in the poorest 10%.” More work is needed to test and improve the estimates by Piketty and Chancel, as well as Oxfam, to improve their accuracy. But what this carbon inequality reveals is that while we all have a responsibility to live in harmony with nature, the immediate priority of governments should be to target the oversized carbon footprints of the richest people. Clearly, this will not be easy. They are economically and politically powerful, and as Oxfam points out, a growing number of billionaires are invested in fossil fuels. So don’t expect them to voluntary curb their emissions anytime soon.
Instead, pressure will come from below. This means that when we are protesting about economic inequality and calling for policies like higher taxes on the rich, we should also be demanding that our governments act to reduce the pollution of the rich.
Even though the richest people are responsible for the most pollution, the rest of us also need to do as much as possible to reduce our environmental impact. This is particularly important in the global North, where Oxfam’s research shows the poorest 50% of the population in a country like the United States has a bigger carbon footprint than the richest 10% of people in China or India.
Here are a few initiatives that could hit the richest hardest.
—Carbon taxes would make it more expensive to do things like drive your car and buy carbon intensive products. But to make the richest people change their behavior, they would have to be set at a high enough price—otherwise, they might just be able to use their existing wealth (which is increasing) to continue as before.
—Luxury taxes could work. Although more and more people are buying designer apparel, perfume, clothing, and accessories, it is still mainly the superrich who buy luxury houses, cars, and yachts, which all have direct and indirect carbon footprints. And crucially, in countries such as the United Kingdom, this is where they have been concentrating their wealth in the past decade.
—Setting an annual personal carbon budget would mean that those with the biggest footprints would be forced to drastically reduce their emissions in order for every citizen to have the same maximum annual impact. This could be achieved with a system of personal carbon allowances, with or without the option to trade (some criticize that option by comparing it to carbon offsetting).
These are just a few ideas that might work. We need to start debating these and other ideas in detail to test and improve them. The carbon footprint of the richest people affects all of us—including them too, of course. It’s time to demand that the richest reduce their pollution.