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Q&A: Paris Agreement won’t rectify carbon footprint of the rich

SEI research provided the foundation for a recent Oxfam report on carbon inequality that shows how much the world’s richest are driving global carbon dioxide emissions, and – even assuming countries meet their Paris emissions reduction pledges – will continue to do so through 2030.

Lynsi Burton / Published on 10 January 2022

Featured SEI scientist

2018 portrait of Emily Ghosh
Emily Ghosh



The report finds that the richest 10% of the world’s population – defined as individuals with an income above USD 56 000 in 2011 purchasing power parity – will contribute to about 48% of global emissions in 2030. On a per capita level, that’s nearly 10 times higher than the average amount that would be compatible with limiting global warming this century to 1.5°C, the temperature goal set forth in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Between 1990 and 2015, the emissions of the richest 10% of the world’s population grew at twice the rate of the poorest 50% of the population. The same 10% consumed more than one-quarter of the planet’s remaining carbon budget to keep global warming at or below 1.5°C, while the poorest 50% used less than 5%.

Though nationally determined contributions (NDCs) pledged at the Paris Agreement are expected to lead to a small global cut in emissions between 2015 and 2030, historical disparities in emissions between the rich and poor are expected to remain largely the same – and imperil efforts to limit temperature warming to 1.5°C.

SEI has compiled a supplemental report to expand on the methodology behind the study.

To provide more context into this research, we asked SEI US Scientist Emily Ghosh, lead author of the supplemental report, to reflect on some of its conclusions.

What are the top-line conclusions from this research?

It has long been understood that inequality in income, consumption and carbon emissions are very much linked to each other. Our analysis brings this research together to quantify how much carbon emissions differ between the richest and poorest populations of the world, both historically and in projections of future emissions.

We find that income inequality translates into carbon inequality so significantly, it undermines our ability to meet the targets set out in the Paris Agreement. Having this large amount of inequality is unsustainable. So, when countries are looking to develop climate solutions, they also need to consider inequality.

Right now, it is unclear how much they’re doing that, but this is also a requirement of the Paris Agreement: to consider equity in climate solutions.

This study focuses on consumption-based emissions. What does that mean?

The vast majority of global emissions arise from the goods and services that we as individuals consume, whether those emissions are generated directly when we use them, or indirectly when they are produced, either within our own countries or overseas. This includes emissions from capital investments or government expenditures, such as public infrastructure, which we all use. We try to allocate all those emissions to the end users according to their income

This is a requirement of the Paris Agreement: to consider equity in climate solutions.

Emily Ghosh, SEI Scientist

How did you estimate the consumption emissions for each person?

We estimated the consumption emissions for each country by taking the emissions targets outlined in a country’s NDC and adjusting for trade-related emissions. We then allocated the emissions across the country’s population in proportion to income, with a few exceptions.

First, we assumed that each person consumes a minimum level of emissions at an amount that differs depending on the country they live in. We also assumed a maximum level of individual consumption emissions at which point emissions no longer rise with income. We use a conservative assumption for this upper bound, given that the emissions of the richest individuals are relatively understudied, and the top incomes are also under-reported for many countries.

In what ways are the richest 10% contributing to emissions, in activities or habits?

Our research focuses on the emissions that are being generated by income level. The consumption habits of the richest 10% alone emit carbon at a level 10 times higher than the per capita limit needed to meet the 1.5°C target.

So exactly what is happening among those richest individuals? There are many studies that show how a lot of the emissions comes from carbon-intensive transport options from SUVs to yachts and private jets, as well as the energy and materials associated with owning a larger home, and for some, multiple homes.

But personal activities are just part of the problem. Beyond lifestyle emissions, the rich have fossil fuel investments that make up an increasingly large share of their footprint, along with more power and influence over policy decisions compared to poorer individuals. Those with more power tend to be less affected by climate impacts and put less priority on taking climate action.

There’s a clear link between the amount of income you make and the emissions that you generate. There’s systemic inequality in place that leads to these types of unsustainable lifestyle choices and investment decisions that the richest 10% are making, and therefore contributing to such a high amount of emissions.

The research refers to the global carbon budget. Can you explain what that means and how the world’s richest populations are affecting it?

The carbon budget is the amount of carbon that can be emitted before we reach a certain temperature limit. For the 1.5°C global temperature change limit, there’s a certain carbon budget, and for the 2°C limit there’s a somewhat larger carbon budget. So if we want to keep warming below a given level, we need to stay within that carbon budget to avoid excessive temperature changes that will increase the devastation inflicted by climate change.

What we found in our research is that the emissions of the richest 10% alone will deplete the remaining carbon budget over the next decade. It’s not clear how this can be reconciled with sustainably lifting the majority of the world’s population out of poverty.

Some of that carbon budget needs to be freed up for the world’s poorest to overcome energy poverty. Just as importantly, the financial and technological resources need to be made available to enable the poor to meet those energy needs in sustainable, zero-carbon ways.

In our results, we’re seeing that there’s some increase in the per capita emissions in 2030 among the bottom 50% of the global population. It’s still not a lot, and there isn’t a lot a being shifted from the other income groups to the bottom income groups to create more equity.

By understanding that there's this connection between income and emissions, we can see that something needs to dramatically change on a systemic level to make us navigate a more sustainable pathway.

Emily Ghosh, SEI Scientist

As you pointed out, the research indicates emissions actually need to increase for the world’s poorest to achieve greater parity. What kind of resources are necessary to help them improve outcomes for them?

The report shows that the projected emissions of the poorest half of the global population increases between 2015 and 2030, but will still be well below the per capita emissions allowed at the 1.5°C global temperature change limit. More needs to be done to pull people out of poverty in a sustainable way, and I think you can look at the UN’s sustainable development goals for ideas. They discuss targets that countries need to meet to tackle poverty and reduce some of these inequalities.

At minimum, people should have access to water, energy, food, shelter, and other basic human rights. But additionally, poorer countries need to develop, while also addressing climate change and building climate resiliency.

Richer nations have a historical responsibility to take aggressive climate action in their own country while also providing financial support towards climate solutions in lower-income countries that will feel the brunt of climate impacts.

Governments also need to take steps to address the inequality inherent in the economic and political systems both on a global and country level, as described in our study, while transitioning to a carbon-neutral society.

Does this research point to any possible solutions or what needs to be done to address this inequality?

Our research on carbon inequality provides some insight into the policies that are needed and what the current policies or the NDC emissions pledges are doing.

On a larger scale, there’s an issue of inequality which just keeps coming up over and over again in climate discussions, and I think people want to understand what this means. Since the 1990s, the growing emissions are going towards the rich’s consumption, rather than poverty alleviation. That’s a direct connection that people can understand.

Emissions themselves seem for the normal person like an elusive concept. By understanding that there’s this connection between income and emissions, we can see that something needs to dramatically change on a systemic level to make us navigate a more sustainable pathway, and in an equitable manner. What are some of the emissions-intensive activities that are leading to this 10% contributing so much to emissions, and what changes do we need to make to our economic and political system to create a more carbon-neutral society?

We want to make sure that the solutions to address climate change do not further inequality. The lower emissions implied by the NDCs will benefit everybody, including the poor, since they’re most vulnerable to climate change, and it’s too bad that the NDCs are not more ambitious.

But we have to make sure that the actions taken to fulfil those NDCs do not lead to more environmental inequalities, like for example from mining certain rare metals for electric vehicle batteries or solar panels, or that they don’t lead to green gentrification where neighborhoods pursuing green infrastructure are driving out poor people. So considering these factors is super important in terms of taking climate action that is both reducing emissions and is equitable at the same time.


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