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, according to new research.
Carbon dioxide emissions rose by 60% over the 25-year period, but the increase in emissions from the richest 1% was three times greater than the increase in emissions from the poorest half.
The report, compiled by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, warned that rampant overconsumption and the rich world’s addiction to high-carbon transport are exhausting the world’s “carbon budget”.
Such a concentration of carbon emissions in the hands of the rich means that despite taking the world to the brink of climate catastrophe, through burning fossil fuels, we have still failed to improve the lives of billions, said Tim Gore, head of policy, advocacy and research at Oxfam International.
“The global carbon budget has been squandered to expand the consumption of the already rich, rather than to improve humanity,” he told the Guardian. “A finite amount of carbon can be added to the atmosphere if we want to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. We need to ensure that carbon is used for the best.”
The richest 10% of the global population, comprising about 630 million people, were responsible for about 52% of global emissions over the 25-year period, the study showed.
Globally, the richest 10% are those with incomes above about $35,000 (GBP27,000) a year, and the richest 1% are people earning more than about $100,000.
Carbon dioxide emissions accumulate in the atmosphere, causing heating, and temperature rises of more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels would cause widespread harm to natural systems. That accumulation gives the world a finite carbon budget of how much carbon dioxide it is safe to produce, which scientists warn will be exhausted within a decade at current rates.
If left unchecked, in the next decade the carbon emissions of the world’s richest 10% would be enough to raise levels above the point likely to increase temperatures by 1.5C, even if the whole of the rest of the world cut their emissions to zero immediately, according to Monday’s report.
Oxfam argues that continuing to allow the rich world to emit vastly more than those in poverty is unfair. While the world moves towards renewable energy and phases out fossil fuels, any emissions that continue to be necessary during the transition would be better used in trying to improve poor people’s access to basic amenities.
“The best possible, morally defensible purpose is for all humanity to live a decent life, but [the carbon budget] has been used up by the already rich, in getting richer,” said Gore.
He pointed to transport as one of the key drivers of growth in emissions, with people in rich countries showing an increasing tendency to drive high-emitting cars, such as SUVs, and take more flights. Oxfam wants more taxes on high-carbon luxuries, such as a frequent-flyer levy, to funnel investment into low-carbon alternatives and improving the lot of the poor.
“This isn’t about people who have one family holiday a year, but people who are taking long-haul flights every month – it’s a fairly small group of people,” said Gore.
While the coronavirus crisis caused a temporary dip in emissions, the overall impact on the carbon budget is likely to be negligible, according to Gore, as emissions have rebounded after lockdowns around the world. However, the experience of dealing with the pandemic should make people more aware of the need to try to avert future catastrophe, he said.
Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, said: “This is a stark illustration of the deep injustice at the heart of the climate crisis. Those who are so much more exposed and vulnerable to its impacts have done least to contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing it. The UK has a moral responsibility here, not only because of its disproportionately high historic emissions, but as hosts of next year’s critical UN climate summit. We need to go further and faster in reaching net zero.”
World governments are meeting virtually for the 75th UN general assembly this week, with the climate crisis high on the agenda. Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, is expected to set out his vision for the next UN climate summit, called Cop26 and to be convened in Glasgow in November 2021, after the coronavirus crisis forced a year’s delay to the event.
As host nation, the UK government is being urged to set out its plans for reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, a target enshrined in law last year, but for which there are still few national policies.