The Inequality Of Carbon Emissions

The Lempert Report
March 01, 2021

What we haven’t heard is the impact of people and how different income groups need to change to get to their carbon fair share.

For probably ten years we have heard about what the impact of producing different foods across the supply chain are: things like how the production of meat compares to the growing of peas to provide protein. The land use, the farm, animal feed, processing, transportation, retail and packaging – the ability to measure all the impacts on our greenhouse gas emissions. We  have also heard that the benchmark should be a rise in global temperature of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. What we haven’t heard is the impact of people and how different income groups need to change to get to their carbon fair share. Vox has a brilliant column that explores this and identifies what individuals must do in order for us to meet the goal of an equitable low-carbon lifestyle allocation by 2030 – remember that is just 9 years away from what many scientists and environmentalists are saying we must do, otherwise the plant and human life is in for real issues.

Global income must always come with a caveat that the cost of living in different countries vary – so that what a dollar buys here in the US maybe quite different from what a dollar equivalent buys in China. So I am just going to share these numbers to give you a wake up call so that you dig into this further. Topline is that the world’s wealthiest people – the top 1% - cause double the carbon burden than the poorest – that 1% equates to 70 million people vs. the poorest which represents 3.5 billion. According to 2015 figures in equivalent US Dollars; the top 1% represent those making $109,000 and more. The bottom 50% make less than $6,000.

To reach the UN Emissions Gap Report goals, that top 1% need to cut 97% of their carbon use to achieve their fair share, the poorest, well they can actually increase their carbon footprint by 300%. The middle bracket which includes the top 10% - which is measured by those making more than $38,000 per year – they too have a daunting task to reduce their use by 91%. So the question is how do we tell the top 10% that they have to give up their rites of passage of being higher wage earners. To give up that second car, or go to more efficient electric vehicle? Or to use public transportation. To eat less red meat and more plant protein? A 2020 Nature Communications paper titled ‘Scientists’ warning on affluence’ underscores the importance that any move towards sustainability will only be effective if far reaching lifestyle changes complement technological advancements.

The United Nations report calls for a reframing of the meaning of affluence away from intensive resource use “toward the achievement of well-being and quality of life.” The UN also report says 70% of total global emissions emanate directly from personal decisions like diet and transportation. They point out that 30% of global greenhouse gases come from our food supply and just one plane ride from New York to Los Angeles burns up 90% of an annual fair share. Many of our shoppers have learned during the pandemic how to live a lower impact lifestyle – on our food supply wasting less, eating more at home, eating more plant-based foods. With our jobs working from home and not driving as much. Lessons we should maintain long after the pandemic is over.