Carbon emissions: Wealthy responsible for most of the problem, report shows

Gas emissions at a manufacturing complex in Toronto, Canada. (Credit: U.N. Photo/Kibae Park)

The richest people in the world not only hold most of the world’s wealth, they are also responsible for producing most of its carbon emissions. The wealthiest 10 percent produce nearly half of all emissions, according to a new report by Oxfam. Its release comes as negotiations over a global climate change deal are getting fierce.

“Climate change and economic inequality are inextricably linked and together pose one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century,” said Tim Gore, Oxfam’s climate policy chief, in a statement. “Rich, high emitters should be held accountable for their emissions, no matter where they live.”

While the top spout off carbon at high rates, the people living at the bottom have a relatively tiny footprint. The 3.5 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world produce only 10 percent of global carbon emissions. If that disparity sounds a lot like previous Oxfam reports on wealth distribution, that is because it is nearly identical. The richest 1 percent own 48 percent of the world’s wealth. The bottom 80 percent account for just 5.5 percent.

carbon inequalityThe disparity means that the burden is on the wealthiest countries to both cut their own carbon emissions and help pay for the adaptation and carbon reduction efforts of developing countries. An analysis of the disparity of emissions by economists Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty makes clear that the United States and European Union must lead.

‘[A]t the end of the day, by far the largest contribution to world adaptation funds should come from rich countries – particularly from the USA, but also from the EU,” they conclude. “Even if high income groups from emerging and developing countries were to contribute to adaptation efforts, Americans and Europeans would need to substantially scale up their current contributions to fill the adaptation gap.”

Economists and advocates are not the only ones making this case. India has emerged as a vocal champion for developing countries, in the lead up to and during, the current U.N. climate talks in Paris. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants the final deal to “force rich countries to increase their commitments,” a government spokesman, told the Guardian. He and leaders from other developing countries argue that the stakes are much higher as they industrialize and try to lift more people out of poverty. It is in part a move to shield India, the world’s third-leading carbon emitter, from some of the tougher rules.

“We hope advanced nations will assume ambitious targets and pursue them sincerely. It is not just a question of historical responsibility. They also have the most room to make the cuts and make the strongest impact. And, climate justice demands that, with the little carbon space we still have, developing countries should have enough room to grow,” said Modi, to other heads of state on Monday.

While Oxfam agrees, it is careful to point out that all countries must endeavor to cut carbon emissions and restrict global warming.

“It’s easy to forget that rapidly developing economies are also home to the majority of the world’s very poorest people and while they have to do their fair share, it is rich countries that should still lead the way,” said Gore.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.