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Environment

Carbon Emissions of World's Richest 1% Are More Than Double Those of the Poorest 50%: Report

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN’s Global Goals include Goal 13 for climate action. Experts say there’s just 10 years left to limit the damage caused by the increase in global temperatures — the consequences of which will undoubtedly be felt first and worst by the world’s poorest people. But a new study says that the world's wealthiest have spent the last 25 years being a huge part of the problem. Join our movement by taking environmental action here.

Whether it’s COVID-19, global inequality, or climate change — as the poorest bear the brunt of the consequences, the richest often seem to profit from the chaos.

While poor neighbourhoods are disproportionately dying from the coronavirus, the world’s richest are enjoying exponential increases in wealth. 

And similarly, the effects of the climate crisis are already being felt by the most vulnerable communities, despite such groups contributing the least to climate change. This is in stark contrast to the richest among us, according to a new report from international anti-poverty nonprofit Oxfam.

The “Confronting Carbon Inequality” report, published on Monday, found that the richest 1% of the world’s population — approximately 63 million people, just less than the population of the UK — have emitted more than twice the amount of carbon as the poorest 3.1 billion people on the planet.

The report focuses on a “critical 25-year period of unprecedented emissions growth” between 1990 and 2015 — a quarter of a century that saw the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere double. That’s more carbon emitted in 25 years than throughout the rest of history.

In that time, the richest 10% of people contributed 52% of all carbon emissions, while the top 1% accounted for 17% of the total — more than twice that of the poorest half of the human race (7%).

The research, conducted alongside the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), a charity that explores policies tackling environmental and development challenges, highlighted that annual carbon emissions grew by 60% in that timeframe.

And wound up into that growth, the richest 1% of people saw triple the emissions increase of the poorest 50% of the world. Meanwhile, a third of all emissions increases in that time came from the richest 5%.

To put this into context, the richest 10% are those that earn more than $35,000 (£27,000) a year, while the top 1% earns at least $100,000 (£78,000) annually. People within those income brackets are more likely to drive more polluting cars and take more fossil fuel-guzzling flights than those who earn less. 

“The over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fuelling the climate crisis, yet it is poor communities and young people who are paying the price,” said Tim Gore, report author and head of climate policy at Oxfam. “Such extreme carbon inequality is a direct consequence of our governments' decades-long pursuit of grossly unequal and carbon intensive economic growth.”

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In a separate Oxfam report published on Jan. 20 this year, it was reported that the world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people. 

Meanwhile, over a week before those findings were published, people in Britain had already emitted more carbon than citizens from six countries in Africa — Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Madagascar, Guinea, and Burkina Faso — would across the entirety of 2020.

It speaks to a connection between wealth inequality and climate change: the further entrenched wealth inequality becomes, the more those among the richest in society will emit the carbon that creates dire consequences for those among the poorest.

The report recommends a dual approach to tackle this. First, it’s imperative that governments target the emissions of the rich to slow an ever-increasing carbon growth, especially through aviation, housing, and energy. Second, poorer communities must be urgently invested in. One cannot be fought without the other.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has meant carbon emissions have dropped across the board, the impact on the overall state of emissions is negligible, according to Oxfam.

Instead, radical change is required — from the top of the world to the bottom. Otherwise, the richest in society will take the planet beyond the irreversible temperature increases that will cause sea levels to rise. And that’s even if every other part of society somehow reduced their emissions to zero.

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“As Oxfam's new report shows, our current economic model has been an enabler of catastrophic climate change and equally catastrophic inequality,” said Ban Ki-moon, former secretary-general of the United Nations. “The COVID-19 pandemic provides an incontestable imperative to rebuild better and place the global economy on a more sustainable, resilient, and fairer footing.” 

He added: “Addressing the disproportionate carbon emissions from the wealthiest in society must be a key priority as part of this collective commitment.”