Carbon emissions of richest 1 per cent more than double the emissions of the poorest half of humanity

September 20, 2020

The richest one per cent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the 3.1 billion people who made up the poorest half of humanity during a critical 25-year period of unprecedented emissions growth, according to a new report released by Oxfam today.

The report, ‘Confronting Carbon Inequality’, is based on research conducted with the Stockholm Environment Institute and is being released ahead of the Canadian government’s Throne Speech this week, which Prime Minister Trudeau says will include an “ambitious green agenda” for a “long-term recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic and a response to the climate crisis.

The report assesses the consumption emissions of different income groups between 1990 and 2015 – 25 years when humanity doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It found:

  • The richest 10 per cent accounted for over half (52 per cent) of the emissions added to the atmosphere between 1990 and 2015. The richest one per cent were responsible for 15 per cent of emissions during this time – more than all the citizens of the EU and more than twice that of the poorest half of humanity (seven per cent).
  • In Canada: The richest 10 per cent of Canadians were responsible for about a quarter (24%) of national cumulative carbon emissions between 1990 and 2015, nearly as much as the poorest 50% of Canadians (29%).
  • During this time, the richest 10 per cent globally blew one third of our remaining global 1.5C carbon budget, compared to just 4 per cent by the poorest half of the population. The carbon budget is the amount of carbon dioxide that can be added to the atmosphere without causing global temperatures to rise above 1.5C – the goal set by governments in the Paris Agreement to avoid the very worst impacts of uncontrolled climate change.
  • Global annual emissions grew by 60 per cent between 1990 and 2015. The richest five per cent were responsible for over a third (37 per cent) of this growth. The total increase in emissions of the richest one per cent was three times more than that of the poorest 50 per cent.
  • In Canada, national consumption emissions grew by nearly 20 per cent in this time, a third of which was due to the richest 10 per cent of Canadians. Today, the per capita consumption footprints of the richest one per cent in Canada are 100 times higher than that of the poorest 50 per cent of the world. If you take one person from the five per cent richest in Canada, that person emits on average as much as 470 other persons from the world’s poorest five per cent.

Tim Gore, Head of Climate Policy at Oxfam and author of the report said: “The over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fuelling the climate crisis yet it is poor communities and young people who are paying the price. Such extreme carbon inequality is a direct consequence of our governments decades long pursuit of grossly unequal and carbon intensive economic growth.”

Carbon emissions are likely to rapidly rebound as governments ease COVID-related lockdowns. If emissions do not keep falling year on year and carbon inequality is left unchecked, the remaining carbon budget for 1.5C will be entirely depleted by 2030. However, carbon inequality is so stark the richest 10 per cent would blow the carbon budget by 2033 even if all other emissions were cut to zero.

How can the Canadian government tackle both extreme inequality and the climate crisis?

  • By having targeted federal programs for women and gender-diverse people to access green jobs and green business development opportunities, particularly those who are already experiencing economic insecurity and marginalization due to race, age, disability and Indigenous identity.
  • Making major new investments in care sectors to create decent jobs in child care and long-term care, which are already low-carbon sectors.
  • Incorporating a wealth tax on the richest individuals in Canada, to address economic inequality and reduce carbon emissions from the wealthiest one per cent.
  • Contributing Canada’s fair share to international climate financing to assist developing countries with the climate crisis.
  • Committing to increase the price of carbon in Canada significantly in future years and enacting federal climate accountability legislation to require governments to live within carbon budgets.
  • Introducing a Just Transition Act in Parliament by the end of 2020, focusing on diversification and energy transition planning in regions of Canada where workers and communities have become overly dependent on fossil fuel extraction.

According to Diana Sarosi, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Oxfam Canada: “We need a feminist recovery based on economic, gender and climate justice. To tackle carbon inequality, Canada’s recovery plan should curb carbon emissions of the super wealthy and instead invest in the care sector as a building block of a low carbon economy and support developing countries in mitigating and adapting to climate change.”

During 2020, and with around 1C of global heating, climate change has fuelled deadly cyclones in India and Bangladesh, huge locust swarms that have devastated crops across Africa and unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires across Australia and the US. No one is immune but it is the poorest and most marginalized people who are hardest hit.

‘Confronting Carbon Inequality’ estimates that the per capita emissions of the richest 10 per cent will need to cut their emissions by 90 per cent by 2030 to keep the world on track for just 1.5C of warming – this is equivalent to cutting global annual emissions by a third. Even reducing the per capita emissions of the richest 10 per cent to the EU average would cut annual emissions by over a quarter.

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Notes to editors:
  • The media brief ‘Confronting Carbon Inequality’ and the full research report and data on which is it based is available here and Canadian-specific data can be found here.
  • The poorest 50 per cent of humanity comprised approximately 3.1 billion people on average between 1990 and 2015, the richest 10 per cent comprised approx. 630 million people, the richest five per cent approx. 315 million people, and the richest one per cent approximately 63 million people.
  • In 2015, around half the emissions of the richest 10 per cent – people with net income over $38,000 are linked to citizens in the US and the EU and around a fifth with citizens of China and India. Over a third of the emissions of the richest one per cent – people with net income over $109,000 are linked to citizens in the US, with the next biggest contributions from citizens of the Middle East and China. Net incomes are based on income thresholds for 2015 and represented in $ 2011 PPP (purchasing power parity).
  • The research is based on estimations of consumption emissions from fossil fuels i.e. emissions consumed within a country including emissions embodied in imports and excluding emissions embodied in exports. National consumption emissions were divided between individual households based on the latest income distribution datasets and a functional relationship between emissions and income. This assumes, on the basis of numerous studies, that emissions rise in proportion to income above a minimum emissions floor and until a maximum emissions ceiling. National household consumption emissions estimates for 117 countries from 1990 to 2015 are then sorted into a global distribution according to income. More details on the methodology is available in the research report.
  • The Stockholm Environment Institute is an international non-profit research and policy organization that tackles environment and development challenges.
  • Oxfam is a confederation of 20 independent charitable organizations focusing on the alleviation of global poverty.
  • More details on the methodology is available in the research report and media materials found here.
For more information or to arrange an interview please contact:

Paula Baker
Media Relations
Oxfam Canada
(613) 240-3047

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