We Need to Tackle the Carbon Emissions of the Wealthy, New Report Says

A new report from Oxfam calls on European regulators to tackle the carbon emissions of the wealthy while supporting marginalized communities.
The coal power station of Boxberg in Saxony is pictured in front of dark clouds on March 30, 2020 in Neuliebel, Germany. Image: Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

European Union climate policy has to address massive inequality in carbon emissions and do more to target the emissions of wealthy citizens, argues a new analysis from Oxfam International published Monday. 

The carbon emissions of low-and middle-income European citizens (accounting for 90 percent of the population) have fallen by 24 percent since 1990, according to the report’s calculations. Meanwhile, carbon emissions have grown by 3 percent for the wealthiest 10 percent of citizens and five percent for the top 1 percent. 


That same 10 percent of wealthy citizens accounts for nearly 27 percent of the European Union’s total consumption emissions—the same amount as the poorest half of the population combined. 

Oxfam’s analysis comes as European Union leaders just yesterday agreed on a 55 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions for 2030. The new target is part of its European Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives last year ranging from better supporting electric vehicles to increasing food sustainability. 

The authors of the report send two clear messages to political leaders. First, that the wealthy have been effectively freeloading off of the middle and working classes’ reductions as the bloc pushes towards its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. And second, that if European policymakers want to create effective climate policy, they need to design policy interventions that will explicitly target the wealthy while bolstering marginalized communities. 

“For a long time climate change policy was the preserve of a technocratic elite, not just in Europe but all over the world,” Tim Gore, a climate policy researcher and one of the authors of the report, wrote in an email to Motherboard. “It was treated as a standalone issue, usually housed in environmental ministries. But that's starting to change now, and governments are learning that climate action cuts across every ministry.”  


“Increasingly politicians are seeing that the best way to build the public support needed for low carbon transformation is by showing how that agenda also benefits the poorest and marginalised,” he added. “People will only accept deep social and economic change where they see everyone is doing their fair share.” 

So far, it’s pretty clear that everyone isn’t doing their fair share. When it comes to air travel—one of the largest reasons for the wealthy’s outsized carbon footprints, according to a Cambridge study cited by the report—for example, research released in November showed that just one percent of people globally cause half of all aviation emissions. 

That’s why the European Union needs to implement policies that target the top, including ending all fossil fuel subsidies and tax exemptions for aviation and shipping fuel, Gore said, and tax luxury frequent flyer programs that essentially reward people for being rich. At the same time, money needs to be invested in renovating residential buildings in lower-income and marginalized communities to make them more energy efficient, along with rent freezes that stop rents from increasing as their values increase.


If we want a real shot at saving the planet however, inequality also needs to be tackled on a more fundamental level. Wealth needs to be redistributed, and polluting private sector companies need to be held accountable. 

While the European Union doesn’t have much control over taxation policy, individual member states need to impose wealth taxes that take money away from deep pockets and invest it into fighting climate change. 

“Spending a greater proportion of national income on care and education of children, health of everybody, and care of the elderly for example is much less carbon intensive than spending it jetting to holidays abroad,” Jouni Paavola, a professor of environmental social sciences told Motherboard. “The same can be said about money spent on infrastructure, such as public transport, electrified rail, and converting gas networks to hydrogen that can support a low-carbon economy, instead of regular household consumption.”

Even with European-wide policy initiatives like the European Green Deal, many climate activists and researchers continue to doubt whether political elites will recognize the urgency of the climate crisis. In a speech to European parliament in March, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg eschewed MEPs for effectively surrendering in the battle to limit global heating to 1.5C. 


If we want to see regulators and politicians put the necessary bite behind their bark, Gore said, it’s vital that grassroot movements continue to apply pressure. 

“If we look at some of the corporate bail-outs and economic stimulus measures governments have passed this year, it's easy to despair,” he said. “Too many are still ploughing too much into trying to reboot the old, unequal and polluting economy. But there's hope too. If we look at the dropping price of renewable energy and the growth of social movements like Fridays for Future pushing for a new kind of politics, we can see how the transformation can happen.” 

It will be a struggle every step of the way,” he concluded, “but every tonne of carbon counts and every degree of global heating makes a difference to communities on the front lines of the crisis.”