FEATURE: Future Power Technology – Carbon inequality: redressing the balance for universal sustainable energy access

Around 13% of the global population don’t have access to energy for their basic needs. Meanwhile, high energy and transport use by the richest in society creates more than double the carbon emissions of the poorest according to a new report. How can this imbalance be redressed, while also meeting global warming mitigation targets? We speak to Tim Gore, head of climate policy at Oxfam International, about the issue.

From 1990 to 2015, during which annual emissions grew 60%, the world’s richest 1%, around 63 million people, were responsible for 15% of cumulative emissions and 9% of the carbon budget (an estimate of the maximum amount of greenhouse gases that can be released into the atmosphere over time while keeping warming to a set limit). This is twice as much as the poorest half of the world’s population, according to a new report, ‘Confronting Carbon Equality’, authored by Oxfam and the Stockholm Economic Institute. 

It found that the richest 10%, around 630 million people, were responsible for 52% of the cumulative carbon emissions during this period. By far the largest share of emissions came from transport: car journeys and, especially for the very highest emitters, flights. By comparison, the poorest 50%, 3.1 billion people, were responsible for just 7% of cumulative emissions and used just 4% of the available carbon budget.

This effectively means that the global carbon budget is being rapidly depleted, ‘not for the purpose of lifting all of humanity to a decent standard of living, but to a large extent to expand the consumption of a minority of the world’s very richest people’, the report states. Which begs the question: can the balance be fairly and effectively redressed? 

Heidi Vella (HV): Why was it important to produce this report and what are the key takeaways from it?

Tim Gore, head of climate policy, Oxfam International (TG): There is a strand of public debate that teaches us that overpopulation is primarily why we’re stressing the ecological boundaries of the planet. We simply have too many people. What our report shows is, it’s not how many people that is the problem, but that there’s a minority of people using far beyond what they need for a decent standard of living. We’ve been essentially squandering the global carbon budget to increase the consumption of a minority of very rich people and not primarily to reduce poverty around the world. 

That’s an important takeaway message: extreme inequality in carbon emissions is pushing the planet to the brink of climate chaos. It isn’t the emissions of very poor people, even in very populous countries. If we want to keep within the targets of the Paris Agreement on climate change then we have to get serious about reducing those very high carbon footprints of the richest people.

HV: Where is this happening geographically, is it a Global North vs Global South problem? 

TG: Around the 1990s, the vast majority of people in that group were in northern, developed countries. Now around half the emissions of that group are from people in North America and Europe. But they are also from every continent in the world, increasingly China and Middle Eastern countries. The flip side is, there are countries like the UK, and others in Europe and also America, that have people who are very poor and also lower emitters as well. 

HV: How can governments stop the richest 10% ‘squandering the global carbon budget’, while providing affordable electricity and raising living standards for the poorest? 

TG: Shifting the world to a renewable energy supply is critical. This has been the primary focus of climate policy for the last 20-30 years, and it remains critical. However, what this research shows is, in addition to that, it’s important to also measure and address the demand for energy. It’s not enough any longer to just try and shift the supply of energy because we don’t have enough time or enough carbon budget left.

That’s where we need additional policies to reduce demand. This can include energy efficiency measures, such as investing in energy efficient homes. This tends to have pro-poor benefits as it reduces energy bills, which is good for those living in fuel poverty. 


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