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The Reality of Carbon Emission Inequality

Updated: Aug 3

The sad reality is that those who emit the least carbon are most likely to suffer when it comes to the disastrous effects of the climate crisis.


The poorest half of the world’s population - 3.5 million people - is responsible for just 10% of carbon emissions, despite also being the most exposed to catastrophic storms, droughts, and other severe weather shocks linked to climate change.


The findings of an Oxfam report, ‘Extreme Carbon Inequality’ demonstrates how the world’s richest 10% produce around half of all emissions. 


Somehow, the myth that citizens in developing countries are somehow more directly responsible for contributing to the climate crisis is dispelled in this analysis. While emissions are in fact rising in developing countries, it is often the production of goods that are then exported and transported to other countries that contribute to their overall emissions.


Tim Gore, Oxfam’s head of food and climate policy makes it clear that there is an inextricable link between climate change and economic equality. The challenge is to ‘build a more human economy for all - not just for the ‘haves’, ‘the richest and highest emitters’, but also the ‘have-nots’, the poorest people who are the least responsible for and most vulnerable to climate change.’


We’ve put together a few examples to help us put things in perspective


- Someone in the richest 1% of the world’s population emits 175 times more carbon on average than someone from the poorest 10%

- Someone in the richest 10% of citizens in India emits on average just 1/4 of the carbon of someone in the poorest half of the population of the United States

- The emissions of someone in the poorest half of the Indian population are on average just one-twentieth those of someone in the poorest half of the US population

- The total emissions of the poorest half of the population of China, around 600 million people, are only one-third of the total emissions of the richest 10% in the US, some 30 million people


In fighting climate change, we believe it is the wealthier countries that should lead the way, given that many rapidly economies are home to the majority of the world’s poorest people. While these communities should still have to do their share of the work, it is not fair to place the same amount of responsibility on poorer countries as it is wealthier countries, who have an easier time affording to properly address the climate crisis.

In what seems like an unfair truth, it has also been demonstrated that those who emit the least carbon will be most impacted by carbon emission reducing policies (rather than those who have generated the majority of the emissions in the first place)...


Another study, written by CSE for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation with a specific focus on the UK, found that those who emit the least carbon are likely to suffer the harshest impacts of policies designed to cut the country’s carbon emissions. This is because lower emitters benefit the least from energy policies and pay a higher share of the costs. (The project’s duration was from 2011 - 2013 and was titled ‘Distribution of carbon emissions in the UK: implications for domestic energy policy’)


Overall, it can be concluded that in tackling the climate crisis, there is an obvious gulf between the global rich and poor. When developing new climate policies, there remains an issue wherein people from socioeconomic backgrounds that have not generated as many emissions as others are still affected unfairly and disproportionately… we need meaningful climate action by everyone - especially the large emitters. And we need it now.

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