The top 1% earners in the United Kingdom create the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions in a single year as those at the bottom 10% create over more than two decades, according to a new study. The data highlights the enormous gap between what has been termed the “pollution elite” and the majority of the people and shows how the actions of a few people weigh down on all of us.
The report was carried out by the research group Autonomy, which focuses on tackling climate change, the future of work, and economic planning. In the report, researchers looked at the carbon emissions of each income group in the UK from 1998 to 2018. It would take 26 years for a low earner to produce the same emissions as the rich do in a year, with the top earners (670,000 people) releasing more carbon than the entire 3rd income decile (6.7 million people).
About 2,015 tons of carbon emissions were released by an average individual in the top 1% over the 20-year period in the report, compared to the 88 tons released by a person in the bottom income group. Overall, the average individual at the top released as much CO2 emissions as all those from the bottom-line income groups combined.
This is both good and bad
This finding shows how a handful of people produce an oversized contribution to climate change, but it also highlights how we could get some quick measures in place to reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, a carbon tax.
A carbon tax is not a new idea by any means, in fact, it’s a type of tax that’s been done before with various forms of pollution. The idea behind it is simple: when your activity produces a negative external effect, you should account for that in the form of a tax. In this case, greenhouse gas emissions are that negative externality.
But one of the main arguments against a carbon tax is that it will affect the world’s poorest who won’t be able to afford it. So how about a twist: a carbon tax on the rich only?
A carbon tax on the top earners could have dramatically altered these figures and raised $126 billion in cumulative tax revenue, if priced in line with the Swedish government at $115 per ton, Autonomy said. The Swedish government had a carbon tax in place in 1991, one of the first countries to introduce it.
This funding could have been used to reduce the UK’s oil and coal dependency to zero and cut gas dependency by 50%, according to the report. It would have also allowed increasing the capacity of the UK grid by 89GW through additional solar, wind, and generation, as well as supporting the retrofit of over seven million UK homes and increasing their energy efficiency. Basically, it would be a decisive step for efforts to reduce climate change.
“Every year in which the excessive carbon impacts of the wealthiest 1% continue unabated is another lost year in revenue to fuel a green transition,” the authors write. “If the UK leads the way, by looking to a proportionate tax on the wealthiest it can begin building a fund to support the vital transformation of the UK economy.”
A growing problem
While the report focuses on the UK, the problem is similar in many parts of the world. A growing number of studies show there’s a “polluting elite” whose lifestyles have little relation to those of most people. This is true both in developed and developing countries, where the poorest are responsible for a small amount of greenhouse gas emissions.
Driving big and expensive cars, owning multiple homes in different places and traveling between them, flying internationally, eating a diet rich in meat, and buying more clothes and imported goods are some of the reasons why the rich generate higher emissions. Poorer people tend to stay closer to home and mainly use public transportation.
A report by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute from 2020 found the richest 1% of the world produces as much emissions as the poorest 50%. The increase in emissions from the rich was three times larger than the increase from the poorest half of the world during the period between 1990 and 2015, the report found.