Not everyone is responsible for climate breakdown. This crisis is being caused overwhelmingly by the global rich, who have extremely high personal emissions and who exert disproportionate control over the economic system.
The richest 1% emit more than 100 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. Their total emissions are more than those of the poorest half of humanity combined.1 Any policy to achieve dramatic emissions reductions must include curtailing the purchasing power of the rich, and curtailing their influence over national policy.
When it comes to counting the emissions of the rich, it’s not only their personal consumption that matters, it’s also their personal investments in emissions-intensive industries. Research by Oxfam finds that billionaires are each responsible for over 3 million tonnes of CO2 per year. That’s one million times higher than the average person in the bottom 90% of humanity.
To keep global warming to less than 1.5°C, the world can emit no more than 400 billion tons of CO2 from 2020 onward.2 That means each percentile of the world's population gets to use 4 billion tonnes. This graph shows that the richest 1% have already blown their fair share of the carbon budget six times over. The rest of the top 5% have also exceeded their fair shares. The rich are appropriating the atmospheric commons for their own enrichment, depleting the 1.5°C budget, and putting the living world at risk.
If we measure the 1.5°C carbon budget from 1990, the richest 1% have overshot their fair share by a factor of 12 (visible by toggling the graph).
Recent research shows that millionaires alone are on track to burn 72% of the remaining carbon budget for 1.5°C.3
This data indicates that in addition to pursuing rapid economy-wide decarbonization, there is an urgent need to cut the purchasing power of the rich, which can be done with wealth taxes and maximum income policies.
Class inequalities in terms of emissions vary dramatically by country. The richest 10% in the United States emit more than twice that of their counterparts in the UK, and ten times more than in China. Meanwhile, the bottom 50% in the West emit more than the rich in many global South countries.
It is important to note that working-class emissions are mostly not "lifestyle" emissions but rather the effect of the economic systems in which they live. For instance, if you live in a country that has not invested in public transit and you have to rely on a car to get to work, or if your landlord has not insulated your home, or if the cheapest available food in your neighbourhood is carbon-intensive fast food, your emissions may be high through no fault of your own. This highlights the importance of system-level transformation, not just individual behavior.
Notes and references
[Header Image: Marten van Dijk]
1. The data represented in the graph comes from the World Inequality Database. For recent published work exploring similar data, see Chancel, L. (2022). Global carbon inequality over 1990–2019. Nature Sustainability, 5(11), 931-938. A 2023 report published by Oxfam finds that in 2019 the richest 1% were responsible for emissions equivalent to the poorest 66% of humanity.
2. The 400 Gt carbon budget was established in the IPCC's AR6 report, for a 67% chance of staying under 1.5°C, counting from January 2020.
3. Gössling, S., & Humpe, A. (2023). Millionaire spending incompatible with 1.5° C ambitions. Cleaner Production Letters, 4, 100027.