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The world’s richest people are most responsible for climate change

The wealthiest top 10% globally use roughly 20 times more energy than the bottom 10%.

The world’s richest people are most responsible for climate change
[Source Image: devmishra1234/Blendswap]

There are huge differences in the energy footprints of the rich and poor around the world—so, not surprisingly, the rich are far more responsible for climate change. A new study, based on European Union and World Bank data from 86 countries, found that the top 10% globally use roughly 20 times more energy than the bottom 10%.

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“It’s really important to understand the disparity between how much energy is used for basic services and how much is used for [luxuries] that are maybe desirable, but not necessary for everyone,” says Yannick Oswald, a PhD researcher in the School of Earth and Environment at the U.K.’s University of Leeds and the lead author of the study, which was published in Nature Energy.

The biggest gap in energy footprints is in transportation. The richest 10% use 187 more vehicle fuel energy than the bottom tenth of people. That’s partly because many people around the world don’t own cars. Even in the wealthiest countries, there are large gaps between the richest—who are more likely both to drive and to take multiple long-distance flights a year—and poorest. In the U.K., for example, a previous study found that 15% of people take 70% of all flights. Most people in the U.K. don’t fly at all.

There are gaps between the energy use of the wealthiest and poorest in every sector, the study found, even including education and healthcare. There are also huge gaps between countries. The poorest 20% of people in the U.K. use more than five times as much energy per person as the bottom 84% of people in India. Though the new study did not include the U.S., in subsequent research, Oswald found that even the poorest 20% of Americans consume 10 times more energy as the bottom 84% in India (almost all people in the U.S. are well in the top half of global income distribution). The richest 20% of Americans consume 35 times as much energy as the poorest Indians, a group of a billion people.

As incomes grow globally, so will energy footprints. But the answer, obviously, is not to deny poor people a better standard of living. An earlier study found that shrinking the emissions of the billion highest emitters would have much more impact than the threat of letting the 2.7 billion poorest people increase their own emissions to have basic services. In the new study, the researchers suggest that policy interventions could help. For high-income frequent fliers, that might mean new taxes on flights. That money could be used by governments to invest in reducing the footprint of more basic services for everyone else, like the energy used for heating and electricity in housing, or redesigning cities so it’s easier to get around without a car. “This is really about holistic solutions, and it starts with these kinds of system designs,” Oswald says.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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