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World’s Richest Must Cut Carbon Footprint by 97%

Updated: Apr 18, 2021

Jennifer McDowall explains recent findings from the UN’s Emissions Gap report and why the world’s most affluent need to change their ways.

The goal of the Paris Climate Agreement is to keep the global warming of the Earth to within two degrees of pre-industrial levels. According to a recently published UN report, however, we’re “absolutely not” on track to meet this goal – and the richest people on the planet could be responsible.

At the end of 2020, the UN published its Emissions Gap Report, which explored the difference between the current global carbon emissions and the levels we need to have to stay with the targeted two degrees. Based on the current levels of emissions, the report predicts that the global temperature will exceed three degrees above the desired temperature within the century.

Since 2010, global greenhouse gas emissions have been steadily growing by an average of 1.4% each year. In 2019, a record 59.1 giga-tonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) was produced, a 2.6% increase from the year before. This was in large part a result of forest fires, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change.

What’s particularly evident from the report, however, is that the most affluent are responsible for this increase in carbon emissions, with over half being produced by the top 10% of earners. The top 1% of the global population, or around 70 million people, produce twice as much as the bottom 50%, or 3.5 billion. This emission inequality has existed for decades, and for too long has remained unaddressed.

Major Sources of Emissions

The Gap Emissions Report states that private households are responsible for around two thirds of global emissions, with residential, transport and food sectors each contributing around 20% of “lifestyle emissions”. With larger homes and cars, and often multiple properties, the world’s top earners are the worst offenders.

A 2020 study estimated the top 10% most affluent use a colossal 45% of the energy used globally for land transport. They also used 75% of the energy in air travel, which is one of the most energy-intensive industries, and so environmentally damaging that there are only seven countries in the world that cause more pollution.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 62% of energy production was still tied to the burning of fossil fuels in 2019. However, the UK, which has a similar standard of living to the US, has much lower per capita emissions. This difference is primarily due to the method of energy production: in the UK, around 60% of electricity is generated using nuclear or renewable processes, resulting in per capita emissions which are approximately one third of those in the USA.

The UN Gap Emissions Report states that the top 1% of earners need to curb their emissions by 97%, a factor of 30, to make a difference. Cycling, walking or car-sharing instead of driving can help, as can taking the train instead of a short-haul domestic flight or improving housing energy efficiency. Nevertheless, stronger governmental action is needed to create a lasting change.

Policy Change

The ongoing Covid pandemic and numerous lockdowns throughout the world could be responsible for an emission reduction of up to 7%, as people travel less, factories close and less energy is consumed. Unfortunately, however, the pandemic-related reductions probably won’t slow climate change if the world returns to ‘normal’: it has been suggested that last year’s reductions account for only a 0.01°C reduction by 2050. The pandemic does, however, create an opportunity to re-evaluate our habits and priorities .

“UNEP’s Emissions Gap report shows that a green pandemic recovery can take a huge slice out of greenhouse gas emissions and help slow climate change. I urge governments to back a green recovery in the next stage of COVID-19 fiscal interventions and raise significantly their climate ambitions in 2021.” – Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme

The gap report suggests that the post-Covid recovery could be a chance to implement green policies, which could keep emissions on track to meet the two-degree warming cap. By implementing green policies in the recovery process, 2030 emissions could be massively reduced from the predicted 59 GtCO2e to 44 GtCO2e. These particular policies would help reduce the impact of air travel, as the use of new energy-efficient technology, in addition to finding alternatives to fossil fuels, is desperately needed in the aviation sector.

“Governments must enable and encourage consumers to avoid high carbon consumption. Stronger action must include facilitating, encouraging and mandating changes in consumptive behaviour by the private sector and individuals.” – UN Emissions Gap Report 2020

Although people at home can do a lot to reduce their carbon contributions, the world elite are the ones that need to make some big lifestyle changes, and it’s down to those in charge to help them do it.


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