The wealthiest 1% of the world’s population has been responsible for as many carbon emissions as the poorest two-thirds of humanity, a new report by Oxfam International has found.
The top 1%, or 77 million people out of over eight billion, accounted for 16% of the world’s total planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions in 2019. In contrast, it would take someone from the bottom 99% 1,500 years to produce the amount of emissions that the world’s richest billionaires produce in a single year.
The disproportionate emissions by the rich will have a decidedly fatal impact on vulnerable communities the world over. The carbon emissions of the ultra-wealthy 1% are enough to kill 1.3 million people from heat-related causes, with the majority of these deaths taking place by 2030.
These findings are part of the “Climate Equality: A Planet for the 99%” report published in the lead up to the annual UN climate conference, COP28, which will begin in Dubai next week. The UN Environment Program (UNEP) has warned that the Earth could see a temperature rise of up to 2.9 °C within this century, nearly doubling the 1.5 °C target set under the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The Oxfam report highlights the outsized role of industrialized countries in the Global North, “because of their historical and often colonial past,” in the global climate catastrophe, having produced 92% of excess emissions.
In 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, consumption-based carbon dioxide emissions from high-income countries (predominantly in the global North) accounted for 40% of the global total. The share of the African continent, where 17% of the global population resides, was 4%, and just 0.4% for low-income countries.
Moreover, the report goes further to examine the specific role played by the super-rich in this crisis, through the carbon they emit from their consumption and lifestyle, their investments and holdings in polluting industries and “their vested financial interest in the economic status quo”, and through their undue influence on the economy, media, and politics.
In the US for instance, members of Congress own an estimated USD 93 million in stocks in fossil fuel industries, according to the report. Overall, Politicians from the US, UK, EU and Australia, who are in charge of passing climate-related laws, are themselves in the global top 1% of carbon emitters.
“The super-rich are plundering and polluting the planet to the point of destruction, leaving humanity choking on extreme heat, floods and drought,” said Oxfam’s interim Executive Director, Amitabh Behar.
A study shared with the Guardian has shown that 12 of the world’s richest billionaires produce more greenhouse gasses just from their yachts, mansions, private jets and investments than the annual emissions of over two million homes. Among those responsible are Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk.
Not only are their obscene levels of personal consumption detrimental to the planet, the pollution caused by their investments is even more harmful. “Through the corporations they own, billionaires emit a million times more carbon than the average person [in the bottom 90% of the world]. They tend to favor investments in heavily polluting industries, like fossil fuels,” said Alex Maitland, an adviser at Oxfam.
Despite their role in driving the climate crisis, rich countries and rich individuals have been able to shield themselves from its fallout. “Put simply, the damaging impact of climate change is being redistributed onto people living in poverty,” the report says.
“Evidence shows that economic inequalities between countries are already 25% larger than they would be in a world without global warming.”
Moreover, in instances of environmental disasters, the report notes that the impact is far greater in unequal countries. It cites a study of 573 flood disasters in 67 middle- to high-income countries, concluding that the death toll was seven times higher in the most unequal countries as compared to more equal ones.
Over 91% of deaths caused by climate-related disasters in the past five decades have been in developing countries.
Extreme weather events will also exacerbate existing inequalities in the global food system, having already impacted agricultural production. Rising food prices will hit already impoverished households the hardest, the study says, with the poorest people in the Global South already spending six times more of their income on food than the richest.
This also holds true for poor and marginalized communities in the Global North, with poorest people in the US spending four times more on food than the richest.
“[T]he twin crises of climate and inequality are… interlaced, fused together and driving one another,” the report states.
As such, Oxfam has pushed for governments to not only target the excessive emissions of the rich, but also their excessive wealth. According to the organization’s calculations, a 60% tax on the incomes of the 1% would not only reduce global emissions by 700 million tonnes, but it would also raise USD 6.4 trillion per year to fund the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
A wealth tax on millionaires and billionaires could raise over USD 1.7 trillion every year. Between 2022 and 2023, 722 of the world’s biggest corporations made USD 1 trillion in windfall profits each year. Of these, 45 energy corporations made an average of USD 273 billion annually.
This is at a time when an estimated 675 million people in the world do not have access to electricity.
“Our current economic system prizes economic growth of any kind above all else…It is a system that has its roots in colonialism and continues to be reliant on neocolonial systems of trade that extract value and wealth from workers in the global South to provide ever more wealth to rich shareholders in the Global North. It is a system that abuses and exploits racialized groups in every nation… [it] is built on and upholds sexism and gender inequality.”
The report calls for a transformation that is characterized by a “radical increase” in equality, a fast and just transition away from fossil fuels, and a “new purpose for a new age”. Redistribution of incomes globally could raise each person to the level of USD 25 a day while reducing global emissions by 10%, Oxfam has found.
Rich polluting countries must phase out fossil fuels “first, and fast”, with the remaining carbon budget be used to prioritize the development needs of lower-income countries in the Global South, the report argues.
“The focus on economic growth of any kind and endless extraction and overconsumption at any cost must end,” the draft implores. “People should be put back in charge of their destiny, and democratically elected governments, not corporations, should shape our economy.”