Richest 1% of the world responsible for 17% of emissions

New analysis taking into account rich people’s consumption behaviour as well as their investment decisions shows a widening gap in responsibility for the climate crisis between rich and poor.

The quest for climate justice has been a core driver for the climate movement from the very start, resulting in the integration of the equity concept in the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Despite this, inequality has grown and climate injustice has continued. This is partly because climate justice and equity have been predominantly defined from a perspective of rich versus poor countries (which is logical in the context of the UNFCCC, where countries negotiate with each other). Unfortunately, climate injustice and inequality not only exist between countries, but it is also important to look at inequality within countries. Some would even argue that the gap between the global rich and the global poor (across all countries) is more important than the division between rich and poor countries. A new study by Lucas Chancel from the Global Inequality Lab, published in Nature Sustainability1, provides some useful additional data to this debate. The author assessed not only the impact of individuals’ greenhouse gas emissions through their consumption behaviour, but also looked at the impact of their investment decisions. The findings indicate that when calculating the impact of the global rich on climate change, their investment decisions are actually more important than their consumption behaviour.

Here we highlight some of the findings of this interesting study through four graphs.

1. Global emissions by income group
Figure 1 shows the average per capita emissions of different global income groups (top), the total share of emissions of each income group (bottom) and table 1 provides with a further breakdown of these numbers. It shows that the poorest 50% of the world population emitted 12% of global emissions in 2019, whereas the richest 10% emitted 48% of the total, and the top 1% was responsible for 17% of all emissions. It is clear that global carbon emissions inequality is huge; close to half of all emissions are released by one-tenth of the global population, and just one-hundredth of the world population (77 million individuals) emits about 50% more than the entire bottom half of the population (3.8 billion individuals). The conclusion is clear: in the short term the biggest reductions will have to be made by the richest 10% of the global population, wherever they live.
(Per-capita emissions include emissions from domestic consumption, public and private investments, and imports and exports of carbon embedded in goods and services traded with the rest of the world.)

Figure 1. Global emissions by group in 2019. Per-capita emissions include emissions from domestic consumption, public and private investments as well as imports and exports of carbon embedded in goods and services traded with the rest of the world.

Table 1. Global emissions inequality in 2019: summary table

  Number of individuals (million) Average (tonnes CO2 per capita)   Threshold (tonnes CO2 per capita) Share (% total)
Full population  7,710  <0.1 100%
Bottom 50% 3,855  1.4  <0.1 11.5%
incl. bottom 20% 1,542 0.7 <0.1 2.3%
incl. next 30% 2,315 1.8  1.1 9.2%
Middle 40% 3,084 6 2.8 40.5%
Top 10% 771 29 13 48%
incl. top 1% 77.1 101 47 16.9%
incl. top 0.1% 7.71 425 125 7.1%
incl. top 0.01% 0.771 2.332 566 3.9%


2. Per capita emissions for different income groups, by region
Figure 2 shows  average per capita emissions for different income groups across different regions, and shows that for most regions (except Africa) the 10% richest have higher per capita emissions than the developed countries’ middle class (except for North America). North America tops the range for all income groups and strikingly even the poorest half is responsible for per capita emissions of 10 ton, which matches the per capita emissions of the middle group in Europe despite the latter being substantially richer. The sharpest contrast is in East Asia where the poorest half is responsible for on average 2.9 ton of emissions, while the middle 40% emits nearly 8 ton, and the top 10% almost 40 ton.

Figure 2. Per-capita emissions (tCO2) in 2019, of the top 10%, middle 40%, and bottom 50% if emitters, grouped by region.

3. Emissions growth for different income groups between 1990 and 2019
In figure 3 global polluters are ranked from the least emitting to the highest on the X axis, while their per-capita emissions growth rate between 1990 and 2019 is presented on the Y axis. Since 1990, average global per capita emissions grew by 2.3%. The per-capita emissions of the bottom 50% grew faster than the average (26%), while per capita emissions of the middle 40% fell by about 5–15% for per centiles p75 to p95. This segment of the world population largely corresponds to the lower- and middle-income groups of the rich countries, which have seen their emissions fall due to economic changes (de-industrialisation) and climate policies. The same trend is not visible for the top 1%, whose per-capita emissions have grown immensely and are responsible for a quarter of the global growth in emissions since 1990.

Figure 3. Emissions growth by percentile over 1990-2019.

4. Growing emissions inequality between vs. within countries
In figure 4, a schematic overview is given of the inequality dynamics since 1990. Global carbon inequality dynamics are governed by two forces: the evolution of average emission inequalities between countries and the evolution of emission inequalities within countries. In 1990, emissions inequality was mostly (62%) due to differences between countries. Back then, the average citizen of a rich country polluted unequivocally more than the rest of the world, and income inequalities within countries were on average lower than today. The situation has entirely changed since then. Within-country emission inequalities now account for nearly two-thirds of global emissions inequality. This does not mean that important inequalities in emissions between countries and regions have disappeared, but points instead to the fact that on top of the inequality in carbon emissions between countries, there are even greater emission inequalities between individuals within countries. Both elements must therefore be taken into account when developing global approaches and all of the big emitters need to contribute to stringent emission reduction efforts. No member of the top 1% should be allowed to shirk their responsibility on the basis of between country inequalities.

Figure 4: Global emissions inequality between vs within countries.


Wendel Trio

1Chancel, L. (2022) Global Carbon Inequality over 1990-2019. Nature Sustainability.

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