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SEI and Oxfam shine light on the “carbon inequality era”

A report from Oxfam and SEI revealed that the richest 1% are responsible for twice as much carbon emissions as the poorest half of the world's population.

Date published
6 December 2022
A story from
UK

This impact story is from our 2020 annual report.

A report from Oxfam and SEI revealed that the richest 1% are responsible for twice as many carbon emissions as the poorest half of the world’s population. The work gained widespread attention – from major media outlets, key policymakers and prominent influencers – and has already spawned follow-up research, analysis and tools.

This research shifted attention to a critical but often overlooked aspect of climate policy: equity. Not only does climate change affect the vulnerable and poor the most, it’s also been shown to deepen inequality, both within and between countries. The research took a subject that can seem abstract and put it into easy-to-grasp, stark terms, resulting in more than 2000 online and print articles. It also armed policymakers and key actors with data to call on the privileged to pull their fair weight in the race to limit warming to well below 2°C. Among those calling for action were UN Secretary-General António Guterres , who used the report’s findings in a TED talk, and tweets from Greta Thunberg Bill McKibben , the UN Climate Summit office , former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the UK Climate Champion  Nigel Topping.

Effective partnership amplifies impact

SEI worked with Oxfam International as its partner and funder. SEI took the lead on the nuts-and-bolts research, which required an exploration of complex real-world relationships and a difficult underlying data set, combining global and national income inequality data with national consumption emissions from 117 countries. The resulting tool – called the Emissions Inequality Dashboard – allows users to explore the inequalities in CO₂ emissions across the world, linking emissions to income levels.

This work fed into the Carbon Inequality Era report, led by SEI with contributions from Oxfam, as well as a summary media brief (also released in Arabic). Oxfam, as in previous collaborations, took the lead on outreach, working with SEI to come up with timely and politically relevant framing and using their high profile and global network to publicize the work, including a launch event with former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Chair of the International Trade Union Confederation Sharan Burrows.

SEI and Oxfam have collaborated several times in recent years and this set the foundation for a targeted and impactful result. The roles and strengths of the organizations complement each other, combining SEI’s reputation as a research institute with Oxfam’s global network and leadership on global poverty initiatives.

Oxfam’s focus on policy impact and outreach also ensured that the research didn’t get lost amid a crowded field. Clear messages and policy-relevant data were priorities throughout.

"Over the past 25 years, the richest 10% of the global population has been responsible for more than half of all carbon emissions and the poorest 50% were responsible for just 7% of emissions. Rank injustice and inequality of this scale is a cancer. If we don’t act now, this century may be one of humanity’s last."
– UN Secretary General António Guterres, using research from the Carbon Inequality Report in his October 2020 TED talk "The Race to a Zero-emission World Starts Now"

Global attention

The result was widespread media coverage, with more than 2000 online and print articles, including in major outlets such as the New York Times , Forbes (twice ), The Guardian The Times of London and the World Economic Forum . Key actors in the international sphere shared the report and its findings on social media, and a SEI and Oxfam provided a briefing to members of Swedish ministries. The report was the year’s most-read content on SEI’s website.

Building on momentum

Spin-offs and follow-on work have already begun. SEI has already released the Emissions Inequality Dashboard and is developing a country-level carbon inequality dashboard, as well as integrating this data into the Climate Equity Reference Calculator . Oxfam released an EU report , and popularized a blog about carbon inequality in Sweden (in Swedish) based on that report, which received attention from Greta Thunberg  and others.

The research both acts as a spur to action and provides tools to support decision-makers in meeting the challenge of ensuring a more equitable distribution of the remaining, and rapidly diminishing global carbon budget.

Chart showing carbon emissions by ventile of income for the global population. Emissions rise with wealth.

The carbon inequality “dinosaur” of emissions growth from 1990 to 2015. Graphic: Oxfam.

Strategy in action

Priority for change

Transitions from fossil energy that address inequality, poverty and politics

This work examined two timely and high-profile issues – growing carbon emissions and increasing income inequality – and connected them to provide clear support for the need of an equitable transition from fossil fuels.

Type of outcome

Changing agendas

The research put the issue of carbon inequality into easy-to-grasp, stark terms, resulting in more than 2000 online and print articles. It also armed policymakers and key actors with data to call on the privileged to pull their fair weight in the race to limit warming to well below 2°C.

Delivering on our priorities