carbon Inequality

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New study casts carbon inequality in sharp relief

In the most detailed study on topic to date, researchers find that ending extreme poverty worldwide would increase global carbon emissions by only around 2%.
February 22, 2022

Raising the living standards of more than 1 billion people who currently live on less than US$1.90 per day would cause only a negligible increase in global carbon emissions, according to a new analysis.

The results underline the importance of the extremely outsize carbon emissions of the world’s richest people. They also suggest that two of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals—to eradicate extreme poverty and halve the number of people living below national poverty lines on one hand, and to address climate change on the other—need not be in conflict.

“Alleviating poverty globally does not lead to large carbon emission increases, in other words we can both eradicate poverty and tackle the climate crisis,” says study team member Benedikt Bruckner, a graduate student at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Past estimates of the effect of poverty alleviation on global carbon emissions have been fairly rough and approximate. In the new study, Bruckner and his colleagues analyzed a new, more-detailed-than-ever-before database of consumption in 116 countries covering 90 percent of the global population.

The dataset divides what people spend not into quartiles or deciles but into 201 different categories. The researchers used these data to calculate the carbon footprints of different income groups in different countries in a much more fine-grained way than has been possible in the past.

This, in turn, enabled them to determine in a more precise way the emissions effect of moving someone from below a poverty line to above it. They also analyzed multiple globally and nation-specific poverty lines.

Crucially, the method factors in the global supply chain so that emissions are assigned to the consumers of goods rather than to people in the countries where goods are produced.

Bringing 1 billion people worldwide out of extreme poverty would increase global carbon emissions by just 1.6-2.1%, the researchers report in Nature Sustainability.

“It is just surprising to see how little carbon costs are associated with poverty alleviation,” says study team member Klaus Hubacek, an environmental scientist and professor at the University of Groningen.

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Crossing higher poverty thresholds increases global carbon emissions more—but still not outrageously. For example, eradicating poverty below US$3.20 per day increases global carbon emissions by about 5%; eradicating poverty below US$5.50 per day increases global emissions by 18%.

“The increment in emissions could be offset by the improvement in production efficiency, energy efficiency, energy mix, etc.,” says study team member Yuli Shan, an environmental scientist and research fellow at the University of Groningen.

The findings cast into sharp relief carbon inequality—the difference between the carbon footprints of those living in wealthy compared to low-income nations.

“There is huge inequality in global emissions,” Shan says. “Emissions from the top 1% rich consumers account for about 15% of global emissions. The top 10% consumers contribute to about half of global emissions.”

Meanwhile, more than one-seventh of the global population lived on US$1.90 per day in 2014; they contributed about 2% of global carbon emissions. About one-quarter of the population covered by the study lived below national poverty lines; they contributed about 6% of global carbon emissions.

Carbon inequality “is visible on an international scale but also at the national level,” Bruckner adds. “In the US, the consumption of a member of the top 10% emits about 25 times as much CO2 as that of a member of the bottom 10%.”

Crossing the poverty line has a bigger emissions impact in a high-income country than in a low-income one, so it’s especially important that climate change mitigation efforts go hand in hand with poverty alleviation in wealthy countries.

Nor are carbon emissions the only issue. “Solving one problem (such as climate change) might lead to problems in other arenas such as land and water requirements for biomass for energy or mining of cobalt and other minerals and inputs for renewable technologies,” Hubacek says. The team is working on studies of such spillover effects.

Source: Bruckner B. et al.Impacts of poverty alleviation on national and global carbon emissions.” Nature Sustainability 2022.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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