Everyone contributes to climate change through the generation of greenhouse gas emissions, but individual contributions vary greatly. A study at the Paris School of Economics has determined that just 1 percent of the population is responsible for nearly a quarter of global carbon emissions growth since 1990.
The study estimated emissions from individuals’ consumption and their financial investments, and also from government spending in their country. Individuals are responsible for carbon emissions as a result of their own activities, but they also bear their share of responsibility for the emissions of the firms that they own or invest in.
In 2019, people living in sub-Saharan Africa produced an average of 1.8 tons of CO2 equivalent per capita. In North America, the average per capita was more than 10 times higher. Meanwhile, the top 10% of North America’s emitters produced more than 75 tons each.
From 1990 to 2019, the bottom 50% of emitters was responsible for just 16% of emissions growth, while the top 1% was responsible for 23%. The top 0.1% saw emissions growth of 80%.
The inequality between rich and poor is driven more by inequality within countries than by inequality between countries. This is particularly true for wealthy countries. For example, over the study period, the top 1% saw their emissions grow by 26% while emissions actually declined 5-15% among low and middle earners even in wealthy nations.
Economic inequality drives a lot of the dynamics taking place within many countries around the world, and this even applies to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Global carbon inequality over 1990–2019
Photo, posted December 11, 2017, courtesy of Bernal Saborio via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio