The technical responses, i.e., clean and efficient technologies, appear to be appealing solutions to human-induced climate change. Different countries have, therefore, devised policies to promote clean technologies.
Nevertheless, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to shoot up at an alarming rate. Perhaps this is because of something we are yet to touch upon - the carbon addiction of rich people - a fundamental problem, which is driving climate change at a faster rate.
Unless addressed soon, this problem might put a serious dent on our efforts to limit global temperature rise well below 2° C by 2100.
Notably, we have a certain level of emission quota, i.e., the maximum allowable carbon emission until 2050, to be compatible with net-zero emissions. This term is well-known as the carbon budget.
To that end, the analysis of resource consumption patterns and other parameters of people from different income strata reveals that rich people of the planet are finishing the global carbon budget rapidly.
They appear to exhaust the unspent carbon budget of the poor people. The 2020 emissions gap report, generated by the United Nations, has exhibited that the richest 1% of people on the planet are responsible for 15% of global GHG emissions.
The report has, further, delineated that the top 10% of the world, based on income, produce nearly half (48%) of global GHG emissions. On the other side of the coin, 50% of the world population, sitting at the bottom of the pyramid based on income, contributes to merely 7% of global GHG emissions.
More precisely, when per capita GHG emission of the richest 1% of people in the world is more than 70 tons of CO2, the average GHG emission of the poorest 50% of people is only around 0.7 tons of CO2. Regrettably, as the global community strives for net-zero emissions by 2050, the richest 1% are in the race to quickly finish the carbon budget left for achieving net-zero emissions, limiting the space for the bottom 50%.
Henceforth, rich people need to cut down their GHG emissions, but to what extent should they reduce their per capita GHG emissions? The Oxfam report of 2020 provides an impression of that.
For instance, to be in line with the 1.5° C emission trajectory, the Oxfam report says that per capita global GHG emissions should be reduced to 2.1 tCO2 in 2030, meaning that by 2030, the richest 1% population of the planet should reduce their per capita GHG emission by 97%.
This substantiates the need for rapid and fundamental changes in the lifestyles of the richest people on the planet. However, the discussion over the necessity of lifestyle changes of the richest people often turns into debate centring on individual vs collective actions.
Some people may argue that systemic change within large corporations and sectors would be essential in attaining the net-zero emissions goal, and has more impact than the narrow focus on individuals. Nevertheless, changes are necessary, both at the corporation and individual levels, to bring down global per capita GHG emissions.
There is a strong linkage between individual income and carbon emission. Simply put, the bigger homes with many energy-consuming appliances, increasing numbers of SUVs and too many business trips of the richest quarter are only adding up GHG emissions, driving climate change to an unmanageable level.
Rich people may have efficient appliances in their homes but they have more space that requires heating and cooling. A closer inspection of the lifestyles of some celebrities provides a glimpse of the level of their carbon-intensive activities.
For instance, Bill Gates took 59 flights and travelled 343,446 Km in 2017, as mentioned in a journal article by Elsevier. In the same year, Jennifer Lopez took 77 flights and travelled 224,536 Km.
GHG emissions, on the grounds of air flights taken by Bill Gates and Jennifer Lopez in 2017, were 1629 and 1051 tons of CO2 respectively. Similarly, Paris Hilton was responsible for 1261 tons of CO2 linked to her air travels in 2017.
As such, without radical changes to lifestyles among the richest people, the GHG mitigation goal under the Paris Agreement is unlikely to be achieved.
Unfortunately, climate policies of different countries normally don't include any measure that may reduce the purchasing power of the wealthiest people. Policy instruments, such as taxes, are often levied to provide a level of price signalling to influence individual consumption.
Now that the remaining global carbon budget, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), could be depleted in less than 10 years, targeted taxes on frequent flying and other carbon-intensive activities might be imposed to influence rich people to be more climate-friendly in their activities.
Revenue from such taxes could be recycled in different ways – for example, public transport and less-carbon intensive activities could be made more affordable. Revenue could be invested in green energy or other related small projects.
The problem might persist as the richest quarter could still effortlessly adjust with price changes arising from tax, while people in the lower-income brackets could suffer the worst. Any measure to reduce the carbon addiction of the rich people should, therefore, not fuel inequality further by making the poor people worse off.
It would be more logical to reduce the purchasing power of the people who belong to the rich section of society while ensuring that the poor people don't get affected. A great step to ameliorating the effects on people of lower-income groups could be initiating targeted programs for them.
Finally, it is up to the policymakers whether they want to acknowledge the importance of addressing the carbon-intensive behaviour of the rich people and act accordingly, or simply overlook it as before. And no policy-level action to rein in unsustainable pattern of carbon emissions of the richest people would be bad news for the planet.
Shafiqul Alam is an environmental economist.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.