New commentary by the International Energy Agency highlights the inequalities of carbon emissions across income groups, showing that decarbonization efforts by the wealthy can significantly reduce the global carbon footprint.
IEA staffers Laura Cozzi, Olivia Chen, and Hyeji Kim write that if the top 10% of emitters globally maintain their current emissions levels, they alone will exceed the remaining carbon budget in the Paris-based agency’s main net-zero emissions scenario by 2046.
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“In other words, substantial and rapid action by the richest 10% is essential to decarbonize fast enough to keep 1.5°C warming in sight.”
In 2021, the top 10% of emitters worldwide were responsible for nearly half of the world’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, while the bottom 10% contributed only 0.2%. The top 10% includes 782 million people and extends beyond traditional ideas of the “super rich”—the 46.8 million people, or 0.6% of the global population, considered millionaires or billionaires.
The top 10% of emitters span all continents, but “85% of them live in advanced economies— including Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, [South] Korea, New Zealand, United States, and United Kingdom—and also in China,” the IEA authors say. The bottom 10% live in developing economies in Africa and Asia, have very low consumption rates of goods and services, “and in many cases lack access to electricity and clean cooking.”
U.S. income groups overall out-emit their EU counterparts, but in both regions the top 10% emit three to five times more than the median household and up to 16 times more than the poorest 10%. Even the poorest 10% of the population in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and South Korea emit more than the median individually globally.
While emission rates vary between countries—North Americans in 2021 emitted 11 times more energy-related carbon dioxide than the average African—variations across income groups are even more striking. Humanity’s average per capita carbon footprint is roughly 4.7 tonnes per year, but the top 1% of emitters globally logged emissions more than 1,000 times higher than those of the bottom 1% in 2021.
“While the disparities of emissions footprints between countries remain profound, a few years ago, gaps in greenhouse gas emissions within countries and regions started becoming even more significant than those between countries,” the IEA says. “These large contrasts reflect great differences in income and wealth, and in lifestyles and consumption patterns.”
The richest group is the one with the greatest financial means to invest in energy efficiency and low-emission solutions and is often the initial customer base that enables these technologies to reach scale, the IEA adds. For example, high-income individuals have been the primary purchasers of electric vehicles, and optional offsets for air travel to fund sustainable aviation fuel development are mostly targeted to passengers willing to pay more. [Or, for that matter, for people who can ever afford to step on a plane—Ed.]
“The investment choices of wealthy individuals also have a systemic impact on the development of clean energy solutions,” the agency says.