The wealthiest citizens, described as a polluter elite, have to make dramatic changes to their lifestyles in order to meet the global targets on climate change, according to a new report by a group of behavior experts. For the richest 1%, this means reducing their emissions by a factor of at least 30 by 2030, they argued.
Tackling the climate crisis requires everyone to change their behavior, but the responsibility isn’t evenly shared. From 1990 to 2015, nearly half of the growth in absolute global emissions was due to the richest 10%, with the wealthiest 5% alone contributing over a third (37%) of that figure, according to the new report’s findings.
The report was developed by the UK-based Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change. It’s a panel of 31 individuals who study people’s behavior relating to the environment. They were tasked to find the most effective way of scaling up action against climate change, unveiling the responsibility of the polluter elite.
“We have got to cut over-consumption and the best place to start is over-consumption among the polluting elites who contribute more than their share of carbon emissions by far,” Peter Newell, lead author of the report and researcher, told BBC. “These are people who fly most, drive the biggest cars most and live in the biggest homes.”
Newell and the team of researchers addressed the deeply divided views about how best to achieve emissions reductions, with some more focused on new technological innovations and others on making individuals accountable. They found that the transition to a low-carbon economy will require a collective effort, especially by those who pollute the most.
The researchers argued that tree-planting schemes and carbon capture projects haven’t been fully proven and are highly contentious. Instead of betting on those, the rich should just drive and fly less. “Even if they own an electric SUV that’s still a drain on the energy system and all the emissions created making the vehicle in the first place,” Newell said.
They even suggested a series of actions to scale up change. These include immediate steps to target the elites leading high-emission lifestyles and to develop new infrastructure to make low-carbon choices more viable for poor households. They suggested bans on the selling of high-polluting vehicles, setting up frequent flyer levies, and promoting electric public transportation.
For the researchers, the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change (signed in 2015) cannot be achieved without radical changes to lifestyles and shifts in behavior, especially among the wealthiest members of society. “If change across society is to be brought about at the speed and scale required to meet agreed climate targets, we need to shrink and share,” they wrote.
Fairness has been a controversial topic as part of climate discussions. Developing countries like India or Bolivia have long argued they should be allowed to increase their emissions as they haven’t polluted as much as developed countries. The Paris Agreement asks every country to act but taking into account the differences.