EU emissions cuts only achieved among poorer Europeans, while emissions of richest 10% have grown

Published: 7th December 2020


EU emissions reductions since 1990 resulted from a fall in the emissions of lower- and middle-income Europeans, while the emissions of the richest 10% of Europeans grew, Oxfam reveals in new analysis today.  

Confronting Carbon Inequality in the European Union” shows that tackling carbon inequality is key to delivering the new EU 2030 climate target, due to be discussed by EU leaders later this week, and to a fast, fair, and sustainable economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The analysis is based on research conducted with the Stockholm Environment Institute, and outlined in "The Inequality Era," which assesses the consumption emissions of different income groups between 1990 and 2015.  During this 25-year period, which saw EU consumption emissions fall by 12% and economic inequality increase, the report shows:

  • The richest 10% of EU citizens were responsible for more than a quarter (27%) of EU emissions the same amount as the poorest half of the EU population combined. The 40% of 'middle income' Europeans were responsible for 46% of emissions, and the richest 1% for 7% of emissions.
  • The poorest half of Europeans cut their emissions by almost a quarter (24%) and 'middle-income' citizens by 13%. By contrast, the richest 10% of Europeans increased their emissions by 3% and the richest 1% saw an increase of 5%. 
  • To stay on track for global heating of no more than 1.5C, the carbon footprint of the richest 10% of Europeans must be ten times smaller by 2030, and that of the richest 1% 30 times less than now. By contrast, the footprint of the poorest 50% must be halved. 


Oxfam's head of climate policy and report co-author, Tim Gore, said: “EU carbon reductions have been delivered by poorer Europeans while the richest have had a free ride. But now everyone must pull their weight to achieve the deeper emission cuts needed over the next decade.

“Carbon inequality could derail Europe's climate targets unless EU leaders take a joined-up approach to both cut emissions and tackle inequality. The yellow vest protests in France show how quickly climate policies can unravel if they are not built on principles of fairness and justice," added Gore.

The report reveals stark carbon inequality within, as well as between, EU member states. The richest 10% of citizens in Germany, Italy, France, and Spain (approx. 25.8m people) are collectively responsible for the same amount of emissions as the entire population of 16 EU member states combined (approx. 84.8m people).

However, rocketing inequality and a reliance on coal means the richest 10% of citizens in Poland (approx. 3.8m people) - a relatively poorer country - are responsible for more emissions than the entire population of countries like Sweden (approx. 9.8m people) or Hungary (approx. 9.9m people).

Air travel and car journeys are responsible for the largest share − around 30-40% − of the carbon footprint of the highest emitting Europeans. Home heating is the biggest contributor to the footprints of lower income groups. Transport emissions have increased significantly in all but two EU Member States since 1990 and are responsible for around a quarter of all EU emissions. This is in part because of the growth in demand for polluting luxury vehicles such as SUVs which account for a third of new cars sold in the EU today.

During 2020, and with just 1°C of global heating, the climate crisis has fueled floods and heatwaves across Europe, deadly hurricanes in Central America, huge locust swarms which have devastated crops across East Africa, and unprecedented wildfires in Australia and the US. No one is immune to these crises but it is the poorest and most marginalized people who are hit hardest.

Oxfam is calling for the EU to use the European Green Deal legislative package to fight inequality, cut emissions, and boost the economic recovery from COVID-19.

Gore said: "The EU Green Deal can target the emissions of the richest while directly benefiting lower income Europeans. It's time to ban SUVs, tax aviation fuel, and invest in housing renovation and public transport to end fuel poverty, create millions of decent jobs, and cleaner air for all.”

“An ambitious 2030 climate target coupled with a fair European Green Deal will help Europe bounce back from the COVID-19 crisis with more sustainable and resilient economies that work for everyone,” added Gore.


Notes to editors

The report “Confronting Climate Inequality in the European Union” is available for download. The report is based on research conducted with the Stockholm Environment Institute in “The Carbon Inequality Era” an assessment of the global distribution of consumption emissions among individuals between 1990 and 2015.

The research is based on estimations of consumption emissions from fossil fuels i.e. emissions consumed within a country including emissions embodied in imports and excluding emissions embodied in exports. The EU is a net importer of emissions, with slightly higher consumption than production emissions. National consumption emissions were divided between individual households based on the latest income distribution datasets and a functional relationship between emissions and income. This assumes, on the basis of numerous studies, that emissions rise in proportion to income above a minimum emissions floor and until a maximum emissions ceiling. European wide figures collate the data on different income groups from 27 member states - excluding the UK. More details on the methodology are available in the research report.

The richest 1% of Europeans - a subset of the richest 10% - have an annual income over €89,000 a year (as of 2015), the richest 10% have an income over €41,000 a year, the middle 40% have an income between €20,000 and €40,999 a year, and the poorest half of Europeans an income of up to €19,999 a year.

European leaders will discuss a proposed 2030 territorial emission reduction target of 55% below 1990 levels by 2030 in the upcoming European Council meeting (10 - 11 December). Oxfam estimates that cuts of more than 65% are needed for Europe to contribute its fair share of the global reductions needed to get on track to limit global heating to the 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement. The EU is home to 7% of the world’s population yet responsible for 15% of global consumption emissions.

The Stockholm Environment Institute is an international non-profit research and policy organization that tackles environment and development challenges.

Contact information

Anna Ratcliff:, +447796993288

Jade Tenwick:, +32 2 234 11 15 

For updates please follow @Oxfam.

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