Economic Growth

Richest 10% are causing climate change, study finds

Arwen Armbrecht
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Fifty percent of the world’s carbon emissions are produced by the world’s richest 10%, while the poorest half – 3.5 billion people – are responsible for a mere 10%. This is according to a new report by Oxfam, which also found that the richest 1% of the world’s population emit 175 times more carbon than those living in the bottom 10%.


The above figures highlight the link between climate change and economic inequality, a subject of much debate as world leaders pledge to cut carbon emissions and keep the world from warming too fast.

While emerging economies are experiencing rapid rises in emissions, they are far behind the lifestyle consumption of richer OECD nations. Globally, it’s individual consumption that is responsible for most carbon emissions (64%), while international transport, investment and government activity make up the remaining 34%.


The damaging effects of climate change are also unequally distributed around the world. While the severe impact of climate change will be global, it is the world’s poorest (and least polluting) nations that are most vulnerable. Women living in these regions, who are often dependent on climate-sensitive livelihoods, will be most affected.


There’s a myth that rich nations need not set themselves stricter emissions targets until rapidly industrializing economies “do their part”. But Oxfam’s findings – that the individual consumption of the poorest 40% of people in a nation like the United States substantially exceeds that of the richest 10% living in India – should help to dispel this.


Oxfam concludes that any deal to come out of COP21 in Paris must take into consideration those who are among the world’s poorest, most vulnerable and yet least responsible for climate change. In order to do this, they have proposed a litmus test comprised of the following questions:

  1. Does the climate deal deliver fair emissions reductions that will keep open the chance of limiting warming below 1.5 degrees?
  2. Does it deliver a major increase in adaptation finance?
  3. Does it recognize the need to address loss and damage from the impacts of climate change, to which it is not possible to adapt as a formal part of the new regime, distinct from adaptation?
  4. Does it recognize the need to respect the principles of human rights, gender equality and the need for a just transition for workers in the implementation of climate policies at the core of the agreement?

The report has received the endorsement of Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel, the co-authors of the study Carbon and Inequality from Kyoto to Paris. In a joint statement, they said: “Oxfam claims that any successful agreement at the Paris COP should take into account within-country carbon inequalities – and climate change impacts. We could not agree more. Our proposal to progressively tax carbon emissions in order to finance climate adaptation, and Oxfam’s call to secure a low-carbon developing space for the world’s have-nots, are highly complementary.”

Have you read?
Who are the 1%? The answer might surprise you
Stephen Hawking: ‘Technology seems to drive inequality’
COP21: How much have countries pledged to cut?

Author: Donald Armbrecht is a freelance writer and social media producer.

Image: A herder stands with his cattle over the plains of Ethiopia’s remote Somali region, outside the regional capital of Jijiga. REUTERS/Andrew Heavens 

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