Class Footprints in the new Emissions Gap Report

The focus of the 2020 Emissions Gap report is, of course, the emissions gap, which, alas, the pandemic will do little to close. But this year’s edition of this indispensable series also contains a surprise: Chapter 6: Bridging the Gap – the role of equitable low-carbon lifestyles.

The gap itself has been well reported, so I’ll not review it. The crucial numbers are that total emissions reached 59.1 GtCO2e in 2019, leaving us with a gap of 15 GtCO2e to close by 2030, if we would have a 66% chance of achieving the 2°C temperature goal, or 32 GtCO2e if we’re still dreaming about 1.5°C (with the same 66% probability).  Today’s pledges (formally, NDCs) are absolutely not on the necessary scale.

“countries must collectively increase their NDC ambitions threefold to get on track to a 2°C goal and more than five-fold to get on track to the 1.5°C goal.”

Furthermore, most of the pandemic stimulus has thus far been wasted. Globally, Covid related government fiscal spending has to this point amounted to about $12 trillion, a huge percentage of 2020’s global GDP. Unfortunately, a lot of this money has gone into high fossil sectors. The details are more than dispiriting, for they show that many countries have used the pandemic emergency to deepen their support for fossil energy. According to Energy Policy Tracker, the world’s largest countries, grouped into the G20, had (as of December 9th) directed more than $240 billion in stimulus funds to support high-carbon activities and fossil energy, while $157 billion had gone to renewables and low-carbon activities. The US, a particularly egregious fossil funder, had directed over $70 billion to high-carbon activities.

The surprise, and a good reason to go beyond the executive summaries and actually read the GAP Report, is Chapter 6, which focuses on “lifestyle emissions” or, as I prefer, “class footprints.” The first part of this chapter ably summarizes the latest research. The second part is also worth a good look, in part because it offers a master class in just how bland and bloodless analytic prose can get, even when it’s taking on politically fraught matters of absolutely existential significance – like the burden of the rich and their consumption.

Anyway, here’s the takeaway, in a nutshell:

“Around half the consumption emissions of the global top 10 per cent and 1 per cent are associated with citizens of high-income countries, and most of the other half with citizens in middle-income countries (Chancel and Piketty 2015; Oxfam and SEI 2020). One study estimates that the ‘super-rich’ top 0.1 per cent of earners have per capita emissions of around 217 tCO2 – several hundred times greater than the average of the poorest half of the global population.”

The two citations here are essential reading. The Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty paper, Carbon and inequality: from Kyoto to Paris, is I suppose a classic, because it came out before Paris. (I reviewed it here). The Oxfam and Stockholm Environment Institute paper, The Carbon Inequality Era: An Assessment of the Global Distribution of Consumption Emissions Among Individuals from 1990 to 2015 and Beyond, is the hot new item, and it deserves far more attention than it has received.

Back to the GAP Report, here’s the big Chapter 6 graphic, which won’t win any comprehensibility awards.

The point here is to disaggregate per-capita emissions into four global income groups, and it’s well worth studying. But before you do, pause and make sure you’ve fully internalized the fact that these are global income groups. Most of the rich people in the world live the rich countries, a fact so obvious that we seldom consider it, though it has consequences that are difficult to exaggerate.

What are the takeaways? There are so many. One on them, which draws on a great paper (Large inequality in international and intranational energy footprints between income groups and across consumption categories) by Yannick Oswald, Anne Owen and Julia K. Steinberger, is that,

“households of the global top 10 per cent of income earners use around 45 per cent of all energy for land transport and around 75 per cent of all energy for aviation, compared with 10 per cent and 5 per cent respectively for the poorest 50 per cent of households.”

Another takeaway is that the times they have a’changed, and people know it.   It’s not the poor and their breeding ways (as per Malthus) but the rich and their consuming ways which is the big problem. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to respond to it. The GAP Report coolly groups them into three separate categories (mobility emissions, food emissions, and residential emissions) and it really is quite startling to see how easily cascades of potentially world-changing ideas can be gathered into them. 

There’s so much we could do!

Finally, it’s important to get the messaging right. When The Washington Post reviewed the GAP Report, its editors chose the title “The world’s rich need to cut their carbon footprint by a factor of 30 to slow climate change, U.N. warns”.  The title is admirable in its way, but it is not quite accurate. What the report actually says is that the world’s wealthy have tremendously outsized emissions, and in a more or less fractal manner—the more you have, the more you emit, on to absurdity. But it doesn’t go so far as to say that the one percent will have to “cut” their emissions to the global per-capita average before we can hope to “slow” the warming.

Which is a good thing, because what it does say is a good deal more useful: We’re not on track to meet the Paris temperature goals. In fact (and this cannot be repeated too often) the world’s nations will have to triple their reduction pledges if they’re to get on track for the 2°C goal, and increase them by more than five-fold to get on track for 1.5°C. Or, rather, they’ll have make such stronger pledges and then actually deliver on them. Which isn’t going to be easy.  And, oh, this isn’t going to happen at all without major changes in the “lifestyle” emissions of the rich.

That’s what the report actually says.

One Reply to “Class Footprints in the new Emissions Gap Report”

  1. Spot on by Tom A. Note please that a categorization of people against wealth will even show more drastic inequality than against income. Wealth is perpetuating over generations in countries and families and wealth’s annual accumulation as a percentage with a population group is growing much stronger within the richest 1% or 10% than within the 50% least wealthy. And that difference is higher than the difference in income disparity of same groups. Hence, in addition to a more balanced income tax for social justice in many countries, a (reintroduction of) wealth tax seems a better way to also address climate justice. Ideally it covers higher social injustice, addresses the large inheritance legacies – but has two strategic disadvantages that need to be solved but can be solved: 1. Separation of productive from consumptive wealth/assets (does one own a company with 100 employees and cares or does one live over the year on his 5 luxury sailing boats and 3 penthouses across the world – to put that as a stereotype). 2. Data scarcity on the wealth of the rich. Income is ideally screened by tax officials once a year in most countries – wealth is not. More here:
    To contribute to higher equality and generate more resources for climate mitigation and adaptation domestically in richer countries but also for the poor in developing countries who have done the least to contribute the most to our climate urgency but will suffer most, we need to have wealth taxes and a fair distribution for dedicated social and climate services – not just a burial in the coffers of the finance ministries.

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