Why does 10% of the population cause half of the world's pollution?

Various studies have pointed out that the richest segment of the population is the one that pollutes the most. In this article, we analyze this phenomenon.


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LatinAmerican Post | María Fernanda Ramírez Ramos

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Leer en español: ¿Por qué el 10% de la población causa la mitad de la contaminación mundial?

"All humans contribute to climate change, but not equally". This is how an article in the journal Nature begins, published this year, carried out an analysis of global inequality in individual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced between 1990 and 2019. The results show that 50% of the world population with the lowest income issued 12% of global emissions in 2019, while the 10% with the highest income issued 48% of the total.

These data are also supported by a report by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), published in 2020, which ensures that extreme inequality in carbon emissions is a trigger for the climate crisis. This research tracked annual emissions generated between 1990 and 2015 and found that "the richest 10% of the world's population (approximately 630 million people) generated 52% of cumulative carbon emissions, consuming nearly a third ( 31%) of the global carbon budget in just those 25 years.

On the other hand, in 2021, the Cambridge Sustainability Commission produced a report called "Changing our ways? Behavior change and the climate crisis", in which it pointed out that between 1990 and 2015 around half of the growth of net emissions was caused by the richest 10% of the population. Of that segment, the 5% with higher incomes caused 37% of said emissions. This work was intended to ask politicians in Great Britain to go to the wealthiest elites in the country, to ask for changes in their behavior.

"The wealthiest citizens, the 'polluter elite', must make the most drastic changes in their lifestyles to keep the 1.5°C goals alive. To reach this goal, the richest 1% of the population must reduce its emissions by a factor of at least 30 by 2030," the report said. It also indicated that changes in individual behavior and systemic change should be linked and reinforce each other.

In other words, even though changes at the macro level are the most important and urgent to achieve the Paris objectives, the role of citizens cannot be ignored. In this sense, we are all in the same boat and the individual carbon footprint adds up. Collective action is needed. Likewise, these studies underscore the need for institutions to monitor trends in carbon emissions individually to guide behavior change policies towards sustainability effectively.

In this sense, today a profound cultural transformation is necessary, to change the mentality of excessive consumption, which supports accelerated, irresponsible, and unsustainable production.

The Individual Impact And Habits

Although estimates of global pollution and greenhouse gas generation are often reported for countries, and industries cause a large part of that pollution, the individual behaviors of citizens also add up. The individual carbon footprint is marked by consumption habits and lifestyle. A study from the University of Leeds noted that: "Furthermore, as incomes rise, people spend more money on energy-intensive goods, like vacation packages or cars, leading to huge energy inequality. Researchers found that the top 10% of consumers use 187 times more vehicle fuel energy than the bottom 10%."

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This explains why richer societies tend to have higher emissions. It's not just that its industries generate more greenhouse gas emissions, but its citizens tend to consume more. This must be added to the fact that zero plastic initiatives, the energy efficiency of household appliances, and incentives for electric cars, among other measures, are recent. For example, high-income countries such as the United States, Japan, or Germany are the ones that export the most plastic waste to other countries, usually in the global south, as pointed out by the organization Break Free From Plastic.

The Eccentricities Of Billionaires And Celebrities

The inequalities in the accumulation of resources in the world are enormous. It is estimated that around the richest 10% of the world's population receives 52% of the income. In this sector, there is another small group that is billionaires, and today, thanks to social networks, it is possible to see how many of them tend to lead lifestyles full of luxury and eccentricities.

For example, the fashion industry is the second most polluting in the world, especially because of fast fashion. And many celebrities are its promoters. Likewise, private flights generate very high emissions. For example, Taylor Swift has been widely criticized for the frequency with which she uses her plane, like other celebrities, to take very short trips that could be done by train or with less polluting alternatives. Another very famous case these days is that of the new British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak because the Mirror newspaper revealed that he pays around 13,000 pounds in energy to keep his swimming pool warm. This is an energy expenditure about 6 times higher than that of an average family.

The paradox is that this segment of the population, in theory, would also be the one with the greatest capacity to adopt energy-saving measures in their homes and lifestyles. In the same way, it happens with the higher income countries, which have the economic capacity to make the energy transition more quickly.