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The Climate Change Problem: The Distinction Between Classes

The wealthier class have released the most carbon emissions. The top 10% of the upper class release up to 40 times more than the poorest and therefore, experts argue that ignoring class division may make it harder, or even impossible, to solve the issue.


Citizens who pay more than £32,000 a year, the middle classes, are surrounded by the world’s richest 10%. Their actions towards the climate crisis are the most impactful.

On November 30, the Cop28 UN climate summit will be initiated, during a period where the entrance to salvage a liveable future for humanity is increasingly closing at a rapid pace.

During the 1990s, when climate negotiations were ongoing, most of the inequality in people’s carbon emissions was between rich and poor nations. After three decades, the roles are reversed, and the situation has changed.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) details the energy-related CO2 emissions per person in 2021 in a dozen major countries, plus the 27-nation EU. In the US, UK, EU, and Japan, the richest 10% have carbon footprints about 15 times greater than the poorest 10%. In China, South Africa, Brazil, and India, the top 10% cause 30-40 times more emissions than the bottom 10%.

Transport within vehicles, especially car use, is one of the biggest factors in the sky-high emissions of the richest 10%. These emissions of pollution are 20-40 times higher than transport emissions from the poorest 10% in the countries.

Also, emissions encapsulated by merchandise and goods people buy, like furniture and electronics, are a major contribution to the carbon footprint. From this, a third of the emissions are made by most countries.

Dr Lucas Chancel, a co-director of the World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics, whose team have tracked the rise of carbon inequality within countries, has said that “If you just focus on the average, you’re missing a big part of the problem, and you might also miss the right policy.” He also states, “The good news is that there are many ways to avoid that kind of deadlock,” Citing the example of Canada’s carbon tax. “They use a big chunk of the revenues to compensate potential losers.”

There is a growth in millionaires which means tackling the high emissions of the rich takes on even more significance when looking to the future. Researchers estimated that the projected growth in millionaires, from 0.7% of the global population to 3.3%, would result in accumulated emissions of 286bn tonnes of CO2, about 70% of the emissions budget remaining in 2021 if global heating was to be kept to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Prof Stefan Gössling, of Linnaeus University in Sweden, who led the study, said that he “thinks it is significant that such a small share of humanity will consume so much of the remaining carbon budget,” and that “It will not be enough to just impose taxes on carbon, as the rich can essentially afford to pay the extra amount, while poor people would be more affected.”

Edited by Vicky Muzio.

(Ana Fernandez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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