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Uncovered: the significant environmental effects of the middle class.

According to data gathered by the Guardian, in numerous countries, the wealthiest 10% of individuals are responsible for emitting up to 40 times more carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, compared to the poorest 10% of their country’s population.

Experts warn that neglecting to address this significant disparity in policies aimed at reducing emissions could lead to backlash regarding the feasibility of taking action on climate change.

The top 10% of the world’s wealthiest individuals includes a large portion of the middle class in developed nations, consisting of those earning a salary of approximately $40,000 (£32,000) or more per year. While the extravagant lifestyles of the top 1% often garner attention, it is the 10% who are accountable for half of the world’s emissions, making them crucial in addressing the climate emergency.

The United Nations’ Cop28 climate summit will commence on November 30th, during a critical moment where the opportunity to secure a sustainable future for humanity is quickly dwindling.

In the 1990s, when discussions about climate took place, the majority of the disparity in carbon emissions was between wealthy and impoverished countries. However, after thirty years, this scenario has changed. Currently, the majority of the inequality in emissions between the rich and poor is found within countries themselves.

According to researchers, this change has significant consequences for addressing the climate crisis. However, it is crucial to continue providing international aid to the most impoverished and least polluting countries.

2 emissions

The International Energy Agency (IEA) provides information on CO2 emissions related to energy use.2

The amount of emissions per individual in 2021 was measured in twelve prominent countries and the 27-member European Union. In the United States, United Kingdom, EU, and Japan, the wealthiest 10% have carbon footprints that are approximately 15 times larger than the poorest 10%. In China, South Africa, Brazil, and India, the top 10% are responsible for emitting 30-40 times more than the bottom 10%.

The top 10% of emissions are equivalent to the bottom 50% in all scenarios. However, in the US and China, this gap is even wider, with the top 10% producing more emissions than the combined bottom 70%. This trend is most extreme in South Africa, where the top 10% produces the same amount of emissions as the remaining 90%.

Transport, especially car use, is a major factor in the sky-high emissions of the richest 10%, with these emissions 20-40 times higher than the transport emissions of the poorest 10% in the countries analysed.

Road transportation accounts for approximately 33% of the total carbon footprint of the top 10% in both the US and Canada. The amount of emissions from transportation by the wealthiest 10% is equal to the carbon footprint of transportation by the bottom 70% of the population in those countries.

One significant contributor is the emissions associated with consumer purchases, such as furniture and electronics. These emissions are 20-50 times greater for the top 10% wealthiest individuals and account for approximately 33% of emissions in many countries.

2 per person

In South Korea, the wealthiest 10% produce 14 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person.2
The amount of money spent by an individual on purchasing items each year is twice the amount spent by the top 10% of the population within the same country.

In less affluent nations such as India and Indonesia, the bottom 10% of the population has negligible carbon emissions from transportation and consumer purchases.

Dr. Lucas Chancel, co-director of the World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics, stated that solely focusing on the average disregards a significant aspect of the issue and could lead to overlooking the appropriate solution. Dr. Chancel’s team has monitored the increase of carbon inequality within nations.

He mentioned that implementing an emissions tax for the entire population rather than targeting the wealthy, who are high emitters, would result in a significant decrease in potential emissions reductions.

Chancel stated that in the northern hemisphere, disregarding unequal emissions can lead to situations like the protests by the “yellow vests” in France in 2018, which were sparked by tax increases on diesel.

Chancel stated that many households in rural areas emitted low levels of carbon overall, but their transportation emissions were high due to lack of alternative options. The implementation of a carbon tax resulted in a decrease in disposable income for these households without reducing their emissions, leading to a negative response.

Chancel stated that there are numerous methods to prevent such a deadlock, one being Canada’s carbon tax which allocates a significant portion of its earnings towards compensating those who may be negatively affected.

Sticks and carrots

In 1990, carbon inequality among countries made up 66% of the total carbon inequality. However, currently, 66% of carbon inequality is found within nations. This is due to the increasing emissions in developing countries like China, which have caught up to the levels of wealthy nations in recent years, reducing the gap between them. Another significant factor, according to Chancel, is the growing disparity in income, particularly in the southern regions of the world.

“It is crucial to emphasize that significant disparities between countries still exist. Additionally, there is now a considerable amount of inequality within countries,” stated the speaker.

The data from IEA indicates that the bottom 10% of the US population has a larger ecological impact than 90% of the population in India.

According to a study by the Stockholm Environment Institute and Oxfam, there are 770 million people in the top 10% of income globally, with a majority residing in high-income countries.

In the United Kingdom, the highest earning 10% are individuals who make over £59,000.

Gilets jaunes protesters in Rochefort, France, in November 2018.

According to Ruth Townend, a research fellow at the UK’s Chatham House thinktank, neglecting to address inequality in policymaking will hinder the achievement of a fair transition towards a more sustainable society.

According to her, implementing a one-size-fits-all approach to promoting environmentally friendly lifestyles puts the most disadvantaged members of society at a disadvantage and erodes trust. She believes that policies such as taxes should only be directed at those who have the means to make changes, while incentives and assistance should be provided to those who are struggling with the rising costs of fuel and food.

According to Townend, wealthy individuals have the means to modify their carbon-intensive lifestyles without negatively impacting their overall well-being. Encouraging this change among the affluent could also promote a desire for greener lifestyles.

Growth in millionaires

Addressing the substantial emissions produced by the wealthy becomes increasingly important when considering the future. According to a recent study, the population of individuals with $1 million in assets (primarily from the value of their homes) is projected to increase from approximately 52 million in 2020 to 511 million in 2050, accounting for inflation.


The experts predicted that the increase in millionaires, from 0.7% of the world’s population to 3.3%, would lead to a total of 286 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.2

Around 70% of the remaining emissions budget for 2021 would need to be maintained in order to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. A newer calculation estimates the carbon budget to be 250 billion tonnes, indicating that the increase in millionaires alone could deplete it entirely.

Prof Stefan Gössling, from Linnaeus University in Sweden and leader of the research, stated that it is noteworthy that a small percentage of the world population will use a disproportionate amount of the carbon budget. Simply implementing carbon taxes will not suffice, as the wealthy can easily afford to pay, while the less fortunate will bear the brunt of the burden.

According to a recent report by Chancel, implementing a progressive wealth tax of 1.5% on individuals with assets worth $100 million or more – which only comprises 0.001% of the world’s population – could generate $295 billion annually. This is roughly equivalent to the funding required for safeguarding people worldwide from the escalating consequences of the climate emergency.

A global tax force will be introduced at Cop28 to advocate for additional charges related to climate change, including taxes on assets, fossil fuels, shipping, air travel, and financial transactions.

According to Townend, it is possible for wealthy lifestyles to be altered in order to decrease emissions without negatively impacting one’s overall well-being. He believes that what truly matters to people are their interpersonal connections and social abilities, which do not necessarily require high levels of carbon consumption to experience or maintain.

Source: theguardian.com