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  • Writer's pictureChristine

Carbon Inequality: the new must-know topic in climate change

We all know that humans, in comparison to other species, contribute the highest amounts of CO2 into our atmosphere, resulting in countless environmental problems for our planet. Despite humans being the biggest contributors, not all humans contribute evenly to this problem. Enter the new must-know term in the climate space: ‘Carbon Inequality’.

Carbon inequality refers to the difference between the amount of CO2 emitted by different economic groups... and we’ve put together this article to bring you up to speed on the issue.

According to a recent Oxfam Confronting Carbon Inequality Report, the richest 10% of people emitted the same amount of carbon dioxide as the rest of the world combined from 1990 to 2015... You may think that you are not in the top 10% (maybe because you make X amount of money and only millionaires/billionaires could make up the top 10%!).

However, according to Oxfam International, if your net income annually is over $38,000, then surprise - you certainly are in the richest 10%! So then, what does it mean to be in the top 10%? Amongst some factors such as health and food security, being in this category means that you can afford certain ‘luxuries’ that others cannot.

How do wealthier lifestyles lead to higher emissions?

More money = more luxuries. For example, travelling around the world, buying a larger house, a larger TV, frequently updating to the newest phone etc. These luxuries are typically carbon-intensive, and require a vast amount of resources. For example, 3,191 gallons of water are used in the manufacturing process to make an iPhone, a return flight from New York to Paris emits 2.3 tonnes of CO2 (enough to melt 6.9 square metres of arctic ice). First class ticket? Make that 5.8 tonnes (enough to melt 17.4 square metres of arctic ice).

But where do you draw the line? We need to have new clothes, travel, and turn on the lights to see around our homes, right? The problem is that our choices in life affect others, and the cost is not being accounted for. In this case, those that suffer the most from climate change, do the least damage. The poorest 50% were responsible for only 7% of CO2 emissions from 1990 - 2015, while the richest 10% was responsible for 52%! This stark difference is a result of how different groups consume energy.

Is your home high enough?

Ever seen the movie ‘Parasite’? It’s a stark reminder of carbon inequality (this is a spoiler if you have yet to watch the movie!). A particular scene in the movie involves a huge rainstorm. For the wealthier family, the Parks, this ruined their camping trip and they had to come home early. But, for the poorer family, the Kims, their entire home, was flooded with sewer water, forcing them to move to a shelter. Even though this is just a scene in a movie, events like this are happening across the world and are disproportionately affecting those closer to the poverty line. Real world examples of this include the wildfires in California and tropical storms in the Caribbean.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected carbon inequality?

As the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down many aspects of our lives, it has also contributed to the decrease in carbon emissions. The way we go to work, travel and more has been severely altered during this time, leading to less carbon being emitted. As restrictions start to ease in the upcoming months, it will be important for the richest 10% to keep their CO2 emissions down. As the Oxfam Confronting Carbon Inequality Report states, the richest 10% can deplete the global carbon budget within a few years, even if everyone else’s emissions dropped to zero.

To summarise - we’ve seen that, broadly speaking, the richer you are, the more CO2 your lifestyle choices emit, through resource and energy-intensive habits. This gap between how the rich and the poor live contributes to the problem of carbon inequality. However, until we can decouple economic prosperity and fossil-fuel usage, it’s likely to stay this way.

It’s a difficult problem, but behavioural changes such as the slow-travel movement, minimalism and initiatives such as second-hand-September are all helping the CO2-hungry 10% to steady their lifestyle emissions. What do you think? Any questions or comments, feel free to join the discussions via our Instagram channel @thecaptureapp or say hi to the team via email at



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