Most global climate policy has focused on the difference between developed and developing countries, and their current and historical responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. But a growing body of work suggests that a “polluting elite” of those on the highest incomes globally are vastly outweighing the emissions of the poor.
This has profound consequences for climate action, as it shows that people on low incomes within developed countries are contributing less to the climate crisis, while rich people in developing countries have much bigger carbon footprints than was previously acknowledged.
In a report entitled Climate Inequality Report 2023, economists from the World Inequality Lab dissect where carbon emissions are currently coming from. The World Inequality Lab is co-directed by the influential economist Thomas Piketty, the author of Capital in the Twenty-first Century, whose work following the financial crisis more than a decade ago helped to popularise the idea of “the 1%”, a global high-income group whose interests are favoured by current economic systems.
The report found that “carbon inequalities within countries now appear to be greater than carbon inequalities between countries. The consumption and investment patterns of a relatively small group of the population directly or indirectly contribute disproportionately to greenhouse gases. While cross-country emission inequalities remain sizeable, overall inequality in global emissions is now mostly explained by within-country inequalities by some indicators.”
The report also found that although overseas climate aid – a key focus of the recent Cop27 climate negotiations – would be needed to help developing countries reduce their emissions, it would not be enough and developing countries also needed to reform their domestic tax systems to redistribute more from the wealthy.
The authors suggest windfall taxes on excess profits could help to fund low-carbon investment, as well as progressive taxation in countries, including developing countries, which often under-tax rich citizens and companies.