Author: Kimberly Wandia Muchiri
ABSTRACT: To better understand what carbon inequality is, we’ll first be looking at what is known as the carbon budget. Then we’ll discuss what the issue is with carbon inequality, how it affects the global population both geographically and socio-economically, and why it should inform climate change policies.
According to the World Inequality Database, around 2500 billion tonnes of CO2 have been emitted by humankind since the industrial revolution (Chancel). The remaining ‘carbon budget’ to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels – a limit set in the Paris Climate Accords – is 900 billion tonnes of CO2 (Chancel). At the current emission rates, this will be entirely depleted in 18 years. To limit global warming to the preferred limit of 1.5°C, the remaining budget is 300 billion tonnes of CO2, which will be depleted in 6 years given current emission rates. Even though there were sharp falls in carbon emissions in 2020, in 2021 global emissions nearly recovered to the pre-pandemic peak (Chancel).
Figure A: In 2019, global emissions of greenhouse gasses reached 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (Chancel). Of these 50 billion tonnes, the top 10% of the global population (which equates to 771 million individuals) were responsible for about 48% of global CO2 emissions, while the bottom 50% (equating to 3.8 billion individuals) were responsible for close to 12% of all emissions. The global top 1% contributed to 17% of all emissions that year (Chancel).
From this graph, we can deduce that the richest 1% of humans were responsible for more CO2 emissions than half of the world’s population combined. And that nearly half of the 50 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2019 were emitted by the top 10% (Chancel). The massive disproportionality in the emissions between the richest 10% and the rest of the world is what is described as carbon inequality (Chancel).
Carbon inequality is not only evident among class, but geographically as well. As of 2021, the average individual in North America emits around 20 tonnes of CO2 a year (Chancel). It’s close to 10 tonnes in Europe. In South and Southeast Asia, this lowers to 2.6 tonnes, while in Sub-Saharan Africa, it drops to 1.6 tonnes (Chancel). These are significant differences in average emissions between regions, and these differences grow larger within each country. In many affluent nations, the poorest half of their populations have seen a decrease in per-capita emissions since 1990, in contrast to richer populations (Chancel). In the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, current emissions levels of the poorest half of the population are close to the per-capita 2030 climate objectives. While certain populations will see their emission levels climb in future decades in low and emerging-income nations, immediate action is required to reduce emissions by the rich (Chancel).
Carbon inequality not only describes the disproportionate ‘spending’ in carbon between classes, but also the disproportionate ways in which this over-consumption affects lower-income countries. The individuals who are least responsible for the climate crisis — the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people – are already dealing with the burden of climate change.
Of many unfortunate examples, the east African country Somalia is plagued by drought and war, with rainfall becoming less predictable as a result of climate change (Oxfam). The majority of pastoralists have lost their livestock and are relying on the kindness of their family and tribal cohesion to get by (Oxfam). The region has also been plagued by a severe locust epidemic since June of last year, which puts crops at risk. Harvesting is taking place prematurely in order to mitigate losses, and livestock are being slaughtered in large numbers owing to a lack of food (Oxfam). Climate effects such as these, along with floods, storms, and forest fires disproportionately affect the world’s poorest 3.5 billion people, who contribute little to carbon emissions. While some of us have ‘carbon privilege,’ the vast majority do not (Oxfam).
Figure B : The issue of carbon inequality should inform climate change policies, and how to differentiate between socio-economic groups. In his report Chancel made a series of recommendations, for example: a switch in energy end-uses policy would be developing public transport systems for the bottom 50%, and more strict regulations on polluting purchases for the top 10 and 1% (Chancel). Public investments to make green energy more accessible for the bottom 50%, e.g. zero carbon social housing, is another.
Climate policies have a history of disproportionately impacting low-income consumers over the past decades, in particular, via carbon and energy taxes. Therefore, there need to be more pressure placed on the wealthy polluters if we hope to reach the 1.5 degree Celsius goal (Chancel).
Chancel, Lucas. “An Inequality Reality-Check for Climate Policies.” United Nations Development Programme – Human Development Reports, 29 Oct. 2021, https://hdr.undp.org/en/content/how-large-are-inequalities-global-carbon-emissions-%E2%80%93-and-what-do-about-it. Accessed 9 Feb. 2022.
Chancel, Lucas. “How Large Are Inequalities in Global Carbon Emissions – and What to Do about It?” United Nations Development Programme – Human Development Reports, 29 Oct. 2021, https://hdr.undp.org/en/content/how-large-are-inequalities-global-carbon-emissions-%E2%80%93-and-what-do-about-it .
Chancel, Lucas. World Inequality Lab, 2021, Climate Change and the Global Inequality of Carbon Emissions, https://wid.world/document/climate-change-the-global-inequality-of-carbon-emissions-1990-2020-world-inequality-lab-working-paper-2021-21/ . Accessed 9 Feb. 2022.
Chancel. “Graph of Global Carbon Inequality in 2019.” United Nations Development Programme – Human Development Reports, 29 Oct. 2021, https://hdr.undp.org/en/content/how-large-are-inequalities-global-carbon-emissions-%E2%80%93-and-what-do-about-it . Accessed 9 Feb. 2022.
Oxfam. “5 Things You Need to Know about Carbon Inequality.” Oxfam International, 21 Sept. 2020, https://www.oxfam.org/en/5-things-you-need-know-about-carbon-inequality .
Wandia Muchiri is a fourth year student from Nairobi, Kenya studying in the Interior Design program at Ryerson University.