This year’s economic shutdowns have done little to reduce global carbon emissions. As pollution has declined, greenhouse gases continue to build up in the atmosphere, blocking future decades of climate disruption and extreme weather. A recent United Nations report says the so-called emissions gap – the “difference between where we are likely to be and where we need to be” in terms of climate policy – is as wide as ever.
As for who is primarily responsible for the divide, it is the global empires, the report says. Only 10% of the world’s population emits almost half of the world’s carbon pollution. The top 1% of income earners around the world, a group comprising 70 million people, are responsible for 15% of emissions – more than the 3.5 billion people in the bottom 50%.
The result: when it comes to reducing their emissions: “The richest 1% should reduce their current emissions by at least a factor of 30, while the per capita emissions of the poorest 50% should be about three times higher. should be like the current average level, ”says the UN, which translates into a 97% reduction in CO2 emissions for the richest people.
More money, more pollution
Researchers have long known that CO2 emissions are closely linked to income. “Higher per capita income usually means higher per capita emissions,” said Justin Caron, an environmental economist and professor at HEC Montreal, the University of Montreal’s business school.
“It’s not true for other pollutants,” he added. “Rich countries are generally cleaner in other areas, have cleaner water and air, but that does not apply to CO2.”
This is partly because wealthier people consume more: they buy more goods, own more cars, have bigger houses that need more energy to heat and cool. Carbon emissions are effectively embedded in much of the global economy, so consuming in general is comparable to polluting.
But some particularly polluting activities remain the province of the global empires. Top of the list: international air travel, which, if it were a country, would be the eighth largest emitter in the world.
Although flying has become more democratized in recent years, “aviation remains the preserve of people with high incomes,” the UN said. A study last month in the journal Global Environmental Change found that only 2% to 4% of the world’s residents boarded an international flight in 2018, and half of all emissions from commercial flights come from 1% of the world’s population. (This does not apply to private flights, which pollute even more intensively.)
“Per capita emissions are yet another manifestation of the massive inequality that is a fact in our society and that we need to address,” said Taryn Fransen, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute’s Global Climate Program.
Inequality is also a fact in the richest countries that pollute the most. (Nearly 80% of global emissions came from G20 member states, the UN said.) For example, a US household earning more than $ 150,000 has a carbon footprint four times that of a household that is only Earns $ 9,000.
If there is a silver lining to these numbers, it could be the opportunity to tackle both climate disruption and economic inequality in one fell swoop.
Economists’ favorite tool for this is one, making the most polluting activities (such as flying) much more expensive and therefore less popular. Leading Thomas Piketty has proposed solutions such as taxing airline tickets or creating a global fund for climate recovery projects, with the biggest polluters contributing the most.
The UN report focuses on the importance of lifestyle change: choosing less polluting modes of transport, such as bicycles, trains and buses, and switching to plant-based diets. However, large numbers of people are unlikely to voluntarily change their consumption patterns without help from the governments and businesses that encouraged those patterns in the first place.
“People don’t drive a car because they want a carbon-intensive lifestyle – people drive a car because that’s the access to transportation that our society provides,” said Fransen. “It is the responsibility of policymakers to support alternatives that give people the goods they need without destroying the climate.”
Policymakers have not historically done this, because the rich people who pollute the most also have the greatest ability to shape economic and environmental policies. This year’s economic crash could jump-start climate action by encouraging environmentally-friendly investment – for example, by financing a major expansion of public transport, which has been hit unprecedented by COVID-19, or by adding cycling infrastructure. Lawmakers could also make financial support for polluting industries conditional on the achievement of environmental goals.
Too few countries have done that, the UN says, opting instead to double up on polluting industries. While the decline in the number of air travel during the pandemic, for example, can be seen as oneFor the planet, the US and most countries of the European Union have rescued airlines with no environmental requirements, although the deal with the US also included protection for temporary workers.
Changing social norms can also play a role, albeit a minor one. If large numbers of people continue to work and do business at Zoom from home after the pandemic, instead of flying, this could have an impact.
“At one point or another, air travel is the most CO2 intensive activity we do,” said Caron. “Every dent in it can have a long-lasting positive effect.”