5 things you need to know about carbon inequality

Zohora, 92, walks along a muddy road in Kholpetuya village, searching for food for her grandchildren.

Zohora, 92, walks along a muddy road in Kholpetuya village, searching for food for her grandchildren, after Cyclone Amphan struck western coastal areas of Bangladesh on May 13, 2020. “There is no food at home. We were given some puffed rice given as relief, which we finished yesterday. Now, I am going from house to house and asking if villagers can give me some rice.” Photo: Fabeha Monir/Oxfam

Despite sharp falls in carbon emissions in 2020 linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis continued to grow. Extreme weather disasters have not stalled – from cyclone Amphan in India and Bangladesh to the wildfires raging in the USA – with the poorest and most marginalized people suffering the most.

The over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fueling this crisis. Extreme carbon inequality is driving the world to the climate brink and close to exceeding the 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement. Here are 5 reasons why urgent action is needed now if we want to stop runaway global heating and build fairer economies within the limits our planet can bear.

1. In recent decades, carbon emissions have rocketed.

The climate crisis is driven by the accumulation of emissions in the atmosphere over time.  From 1990 to 2015, global annual carbon emissions grew by around 60%, and the total emissions added to the atmosphere since the mid-1800s approximately doubled.

During 2020, and with around 1C of global heating, climate change has fuelled deadly cyclones in India and Bangladesh, huge locust swarms that have devastated crops across Africa and unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires across Australia and the US. The drop in emissions due to COVID-related lockdowns will have only a tiny impact without further emissions cuts.

2. Carbon inequality is driving us to the climate brink.

While many of us enjoy ‘carbon privilege’, the majority of us don’t. The world's poorest 3.5 billion people contribute little to carbon emissions but are most affected by climate impacts like floods, storms, and droughts.

Extreme carbon inequality is the result of political choices made over the past 20-30 years. It is a direct consequence of our governments’ decades long pursuit of grossly unequal and carbon intensive economic growth.

The world's richest 10% of people were responsible for more than half of the carbon added to the atmosphere between 1990 and 2015.

In those 25 years alone, they blew one third of our remaining global 1.5C carbon budget, compared to just 4 percent for the poorest half of the population.

The richest 1% of the world’s population were responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the 3.1 billion people who made up the poorest half of humanity.

It took about 140 years to use 750Gt of the global carbon budget, and just 25 years from 1990 to 2015 to use about the same again – over half of which linked to the consumption of just the richest 10% of people.

The per capita consumption footprints of the richest 1% are currently around 35 times higher than the target for 2030, and more than 100 times higher than the poorest 50%.

3. There is a limit to the total amount of carbon we can collectively emit.

The ‘carbon budget’ is the amount of carbon dioxide that can be added to the atmosphere without causing global temperatures to rise above 1.5C – the goal set by governments in the Paris Agreement to avoid the very worst impacts of uncontrolled climate change.

Over the past 20-30 years, it squandered in the service of increasing the consumption of the already affluent, rather than lifting people out of poverty. We’re getting dangerously close to reaching the limit to the total amount of carbon we can collectively emit if we want to stop runaway global heating.

Restrictions related to the pandemic saw global emissions fall this year. But they are likely to rebound and unless they continue to decline rapidly, the 1.5C global carbon budget will be fully depleted by 2030. The inequality is such that the richest 10% alone would fully deplete it by just a few years later, even if everyone else's emissions dropped to zero tomorrow.

Ashra with her camels, Somali region, Ethiopia.

Drought and conflict are endemic in the Somali region. Climate change is causing less and unpredictable rains. Most of the pastoralists have lost their cattle and are surviving on the goodwill of relatives and tribal solidarity. Since June last year the region has been suffering from a severe locust plague.

Most of the crops on the land have been lost or harvested to early in a desperate attempt to save it. The grassing lands for the camels, cows, goats and sheep are barren. People are on the brink of hunger and huge loss of cattle due to lack of food. Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

4. Poor communities and young people are paying the highest price.

Unequal economic growth slows poverty reduction rates. But it has another cost: it means that the global carbon budget is being rapidly depleted, not for the purpose of lifting all of humanity to a decent standard of living, but to a large extent to expand the consumption of a minority of the world's very richest people.

This is an injustice which is felt most cruelly by two groups who are least responsible for the climate crisis: the world's poorest and most vulnerable people around the world today – already struggling with climate impacts today – and future generations who will inherit a depleted carbon budget and an even more dangerous climate.

5. Governments showed they can be radical when there is no other choice.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, governments and businesses showed how they could make previously unthinkable changes in the face of an imminent threat: flights were grounded, new bike lanes appeared in cities, and homeworking cut traffic congestion.

If we come together and act fast, we can use this unprecedented moment to act differently in our own lives and push our governments to reshape our economies and build a better tomorrow for us all.

As we move into recovery from Covid-19, we need far-reaching and ambitious action against the twin inequality and climate crises. Governments have an historic, and final, opportunity. They must act now to both cut the emissions of the richest and increase support to the poorest.

There is hope if we all play a role

Carbon privilege has driven the world towards climate catastrophe. Now, the recovery from Covid-19 must tackle the twin climate and inequality crises.

Join the #ClimateChangers community to play your part in fighting climate crisis.