Unfairness in carbon emissions

Like so many things in our world, there is an unfair distribution of carbon emissions. That’s clearly true between countries but it’s true, starkly, within countries too. In emissions terms, not all people are created equal. As we come to think about paying for climate change mitigation and financing a just transition to the decarbonised world that we need, those differentials will increasingly matter. The rich will need to pay more; fortunately, they can afford to.

While some measures of per capita carbon intensity focus on fossil fuel producing nations, for fairness we should really be thinking about measures of intensity based on consumption. As a recent academic study trying to understand the differing carbon footprints of consumers puts it: “It is widely accepted as a basic principle of fairness that those benefiting from an activity, like the GHG emission that drive climate change, should bear some responsibility in mitigating the damage caused by those activities.” Those who benefit from the use of goods should shoulder the burden of the carbon emissions associated with their production.

It’s for this reason that arguments that population growth is the most significant driver of increases in carbon emissions are largely wrong. While population growth doesn’t make the challenge of attaining the absolute drops in emissions that we need, it isn’t the fundamental driver, for the simple fact that the countries with the greatest growth in population are among those whose people consume the least and so have lifestyles responsible for less emissions. That’s particularly true following the recent news that China’s population has already started to fall. China is the most carbon polluting nation in the world, though that is mostly due to its (albeit diminishing) role as factory for the world. It is lower in the rankings on a consumer measure of carbon intensity, but actually on a per capita basis it is above the average across the world (7 tonnes a head against 4.7 tonnes, according to Our World in Data).

The range in this consumer intensity measure across the world is remarkable, from 25 tonnes in Qatar and over 15 in the US, to just 1% of that US number – 0.13, 0.16, 0.17 and 0.17 tonnes – per head of population in Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia respectively. Each individual in India, perhaps already the world’s most populous nation, is responsible for just a tenth of the emissions attributed to a citizen of the US; two other countries with large and growing populations, Indonesia and Nigeria, are also well below the global average, at 2.3 tonnes and 0.6 tonnes respectively.

These ranges are stark, but the ranges within countries are if anything more remarkable. That’s where the recent academic study comes in. Lifestyles and levels of consumption drive striking differences. As shown in the chart above, the academics estimate the carbon footprint of different income groups across the US, and reveal a range in emissions from 17 tonnes for the poorest households to 950 tonnes for the wealthiest 0.1% (note that these numbers are not directly comparable with those above as they are household rather than individual figures). That doesn’t tell the whole story, though: there are a group they dub ‘super emitters’, just 1.5% of the wealthiest 0.1% – around 1900 households – whose emissions are in excess of 3000 tonnes. The recent pictures of the ranks of private jets at Davos remind us that some people live in a different world – or live taking an unfair portion of the resources of our shared world.

Referencing a 2021 paper, which suggests that each US billionaire has a carbon footprint in excess of 8000 tonnes, the academics argue that their estimates for super emitters “are reasonable and possibly conservative”. They certainly seem more reliable numbers than the remarkable 3 million tonnes of carbon which Oxfam America attributes to billionaires in its recent Survival of the Richest report on inequality (the charity appears to attribute significant footprints based on investment holdings of fossil fuel businesses, rather than base its numbers on household consumption).

Andrew Fanning of the Doughnut Economics Action Lab and Leeds University has produced this striking visualisation of the academic study’s results:

Unfortunately, this unfairness in emissions is getting worse. The study notes that in 2019 the average US household was responsible for the emission of 41.7 tonnes of CO2, a reduction of 16% from the 1996 figure. All income groups show a consistent reduction in their carbon footprints – with the exception of the richest. They suggest that the top 1% were responsible for an emissions increase of 23% over that same period – with the top 0.1% behind the bulk of that, because their emissions went up by fully 50%.

The authors make a link to the ‘loss and damage’ agreement that was the sole real progress made at the COP 27 climate conference. Under this, wealthy nations undertook to pay funds to support poorer countries already suffering significant physical impacts of climate change. The richest acknowledged that they are responsible for the bulk of the change in climate, and need to pay to reflect this; the richest within countries, the academics suggest, should similarly step up. They can afford to, because while there is remarkable inequality in emissions, this inequality is less than that for income: “The Gini coefficient for the emissions distribution is 0.35. For comparison the US income distribution Gini coefficient is 0.49.”

This reflects the findings of a study from last year, a meta-study of the existing literature on the relationship between household carbon footprints and different incomes and expenditures – the income elasticity and expenditure elasticity of emissions, to use the jargon. As this chart shows, while footprints increase they do not match increases in expenditure, let alone the steepness of the increases in income.

The study suggests that the elasticity measures more nearly approach 1 – in other words, the steepness of the increase in the emissions slope more closely matches the income and expenditure increases – in countries where electricity and transport have seen carbon reductions. This makes sense: if the baseline economic activities that are largely common across income groups – heating and lighting housing, and the basics of transport – have been largely decarbonised, the emissions footprints of individuals will much more closely mirror their overall expenditure levels.

Even if this does happen as we decarbonise the economy, and the steepness of the slope showing an increase in carbon emissions does begin to match that for expenditure, it will still be a long way short of the increase in incomes. The unfairnesses in the income distributions will continue to outstrip the unfairnesses in emissions. This strongly suggests that the richest should have excess money to be able readily to afford additional payments to reflect their greater carbon footprints. However, like the loss and damage agreement for nation states, we will have to see whether the rich do indeed step up to this particular challenge. A just transition will need them to.

See also: Just transitions and gilets jaunes

Sea level rise: the most unjust transition

Assessing US consumers’ carbon footprints reveals outsized impact of the top 1%, Jared Starr, Craig Nicolson, Michael Ash, Ezra M. Markowitz, Daniel Moran, Ecological Economics 205 (2023) 107698

Our World in Data

The outsized carbon footprints of the super-rich, Beatriz Barros, Richard Wilk, Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy 17 (2021) 316–322

Survival of the Richest, Oxfam America, January 2023

Doughnut Economics Action Lab

Loss and Damage agreement, UN FCC, November 2022

Expenditure elasticity and income elasticity of GHG emissions – a survey of literature on household carbon footprint, Antonin Pottier, Ecological Economics 192 (2022) 107251

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