Greater equality could increase carbon emissions

Published: 4 February 2016 at 12:54

Greater equality could increase emissions

Global Sustainability Institute report highlights difficulties in meeting Paris targets

Reducing wealth inequality could lead to an increase in carbon emissions, warns an academic from Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute.

Oxfam’s report ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos indicated that inequality is increasing, with the wealth of the richest 62 individuals now the same as the poorest 50% of the world’s population combined.

However, in a Global Sustainability Institute working paper, Dario Kenner highlights that any policies to redistribute wealth could affect individual countries’ attempts to meet new carbon emissions targets agreed in Paris.

According to new figures by economists Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel, the richest 1% in the United States have the highest per capita carbon footprint in the world.  They calculated that the richest 1% emit an average of 318 tonnes of CO2e per person, while the average emissions of the poorest 10% is 3.6 tonnes of CO2e per person.

And similar, although slightly less extreme, differences exist in other major industrial countries, with the richest 1% in France, Germany, China, India and the UK all having the highest average per capita carbon footprint.

Kenner’s paper shows how wealth gaps create an unequal distribution of disposable income, with the richest 10% in the United States having around 33% of disposable income compared to the poorest 10% who hold just 0.9%.  And what would happen if the United States government attempted to redistribute wealth via increased taxes on the richest?  

In theory if the poorest, and to a certain extent the middle class, received additional income  they would increase their carbon footprints through direct emissions (they would travel more by car and planes, and use more energy in their homes) and indirect emissions (they would purchase more electronic goods, clothing, meat and imported food).

Kenner believes there needs to be a frank debate about which policies will make the richest 1% reduce their carbon footprint.  He points out that if carbon taxes are not high enough they are unlikely to affect the consumption and emissions of the richest 1%, who will continue to fly by private jet, stay in luxury hotels, own large properties, and consume food and drink with high food miles.

Kenner, a Visiting Fellow at the Global Sustainability Institute, said: 

“Piketty and Chancel’s data shows this unequal distribution of greenhouse gas emissions has deepened over the last 15 years, but in order to meet new targets following Paris, citizens across all income groups will need to reduce their emissions. 

“With income and wealth inequality at extreme levels across the world, many governments will be looking to introduce policies to redistribute wealth.  However, this could increase the national carbon footprint if those individuals who receive additional income use it to purchase carbon intensive goods and services.  

“This could affect individual countries’ attempts to meet new carbon emissions targets agreed at the Paris climate conference.  The challenge is to factor climate change in to policies that aim to reduce inequality, and vice versa.”