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SUV’s to Private Jets: Free Passes to ‘Polluter Elite’ are a Threat to 1.5°C, Oxfam Says

The world’s rich “consume and consume and consume with no thought,” Oxfam says, quoting UN climate secretary Patricia Espinosa in a new report that details how the “polluter elite” must be held accountable for its highly disproportionate contribution to excess greenhouse gas emissions.

The richest 1% alone are expected to generate almost double the total emissions of the poorest 50%, concludes briefing note titled Carbon Inequality in 2030, written by Tim Gore of the Institute of European Environmental Policy (IEEP), with research from the IEEP and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).

The report assesses the world’s population in four segments, each with its own carbon footprint:

The richest 1%: By 2030, the richest 1% will be responsible for 16% of total consumption-based emissions, up from a 13% share in 1990, Oxfam reports. In order to achieve per capita emissions consistent with 1.5°C warming, the 1% will need to reduce their emissions 97% by 2030. 

According to studies cited in the note, the “carbon footprints of the rich and famous” include homes, vehicles, aircraft, and yachts (including super-yachts that emit 7,000 tonnes a year), and lately, space tourism. In addition to direct consumption, their footprints include emissions associated with capital investments, a large and growing share of the total.

The richest 10%: Inflated emissions are not limited to the uber-rich. Next in line, the top 10% of global emitters are expected to contribute 32%—almost a third—of the global total by 2030. By themselves, emissions from the top decile will be almost equal to the global maximum required to limit warming to 1.5°C. To achieve an equal share, the richest 10% will need to reduce per capita emissions by 90%. BBC says an income of US$55,000 is enough to put someone in the world’s richest 10%.

The middle 40%: The next group, the middle 40% of emitters, will be responsible for 43% of per capita emissions in 2030. This group is expected to achieve a 9% reduction, mostly in the lower and middle income ranges, but will need to reduce its emissions much more—by 57%—to achieve the average per capita emissions target.

The poorest 50%: The poorest 50% of the global population will be responsible for only 9% of per capita emissions by 2030. Although their individual emissions are expected to climb slightly, by 17%, they will still only represent a small fraction of the 1.5°C target (an increase of 233% would be needed to achieve 2.3 tonnes/year).

In other words, those who blame the world’s poor for rising emissions have got the wrong end of the stick, Oxfam concludes. Although much fewer in number, the top 1% and top 10% contribute a much greater share of emissions: 48% vs 9%. 

That means emissions reductions must target the rich, who “appear to feel they have a free pass to pollute,” said Oxfam Climate Policy Specialist Anya Knechtel. The rich have an impact beyond their personal footprint as role models, political influencers, and business leaders. They also have the greatest resources to spend on reducing their personal emissions. Recommended measures include heavy taxes and even outright bans on high-emitting luxury consumption like SUVs, mega-yachts, private jets, and redirecting investments toward a low-carbon economy.

Oxfam says actions to reduce extremes in global inequality must play a central role in ending the climate crisis. “While the wealthy may be able to buffer the effects of climate change for a time, the rest of the world cannot,” Knechtel said. “Carbon inequality highlights the injustice of the climate crisis, and unless governments take measures to address emissions and inequities, disparities will only worsen.”

The note also points to a shift in the geographic distribution of the high-emitting rich. In 2015, the United States had the largest share of the top 1%: 37% of the global total. By 2030, China is expected to pull ahead with 23% of the total, while the U.S. drops to 19%. India is expected to grow from 5% to 11%, while the EU drops from 11% to 4%. 

But even so, “over the past 25 years, the richest 10% of the global population has been responsible for more than half of all carbon emissions,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres, in a remark cited by Oxfam. “Rank injustice and inequality on this scale is a cancer. If we don’t act now, this century may be our last.”