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Richest 1% emit as much planet-heating pollution as two-thirds of humanity

Oxfam Australia 5 mins read

Richest 1% of Australians emit 17 times more than the populations of Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Kiribati combined

 The richest 1 percent of the world’s population produced as much carbon pollution in 2019 than the five billion people who made up the poorest two-thirds of humanity, reveals a new Oxfam report today. It comes ahead of the UN climate summit in Dubai, amid growing fears that the 1.5°C target for curtailing rising temperatures appears increasingly unachievable.

In Australia, the top 1% of Australia's wealthiest individuals, about 250,000 people, collectively emit 17 times more emissions than the combined 2 million people of Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Kiribati.

The world’s richest, including in Australia, are destroying the climate with their huge carbon emissions, while people in the Pacific are paying the highest price in climate impacts and have the least resources to cope.

Globally, these outsized emissions of the richest 1 percent will cause 1.3 million heat-related excess deaths, roughly equivalent to the populations of Fiji and Vanuatu combined. Most of these deaths will occur between 2020 and 2030.

“Australia has long played an out-sized role in contributing to and worsening climate change, both as a high domestic emitter of greenhouse gases and a prolific exporter of fossil fuels to the rest of the world. We need to be clear though, it’s the wealthiest among us who have driven these high emissions through their excessive lifestyles, fossil fuel investments, and their economic and political influence to maintain the polluting status-quo they profit from,” said Oxfam Australia Chief Executive Lyn Morgain.

“The super-rich are plundering and polluting the planet to the point of destruction, leaving humanity choking on extreme heat, floods and drought,” said Ms Morgain.

“For years we’ve fought to end the era of fossil fuels to save millions of lives and our planet. It’s clearer than ever this will be impossible until we, too, end the era of extreme wealth,” she added.

Climate Equality: A Planet for the 99%” is based on research with the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and assesses the consumption emissions of different income groups in 2019, the most recent year for which data are available. The report shows the stark gap between the carbon footprints of the super-rich—whose carbon-hungry lifestyles and investments in polluting industries like fossil fuels are driving global warming—and the bulk of people across the world.

  • The richest 1 percent globally (77 million people) were responsible for 16 percent of global consumption emissions in 2019—more than all car and road transport emissions. The richest 10 percent accounted for half (50 percent) of emissions.
  • In Australia, the richest 1% of emitted more carbon pollution in 2019 than all 14.7 million passenger vehicles in the country. The richest 1% emitted 22 times as much per person as the 50% of people on lower incomes.
  • It would take about 1,500 years for someone in the bottom 99 percent globally to produce as much carbon as the richest billionaires do in a year. 
  • Every year, the emissions of the richest 1 percent globally cancel out the carbon savings coming from nearly one million wind turbines.
  • Since the 1990s, the richest 1 percent globally have used up twice as much of the carbon we have left to burn without increasing global temperatures above the safe limit of 1.5°C than the poorest half of humanity.
  • The per capita carbon emissions of world’s richest 1 percent are set to be 22 times greater than the level compatible with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement in 2030. In Australia the emissions of Australia’s richest 1% exceeded this 1.5 degree-aligned limit 43 times over.

Climate breakdown and inequality are locked in a vicious cycle—Oxfam has seen first-hand how people living in poverty, women and girls, Indigenous communities and low-income countries are feeling the unequal brunt of climate impacts, which in turn increase the equity divide. The report finds that seven times more people die from floods in more unequal countries. Climate change is already worsening poverty and inequality both between and within countries.

Governments can tackle the twin crises of inequality and climate change by targeting the excessive emissions of the super-rich, and investing in public services and meeting climate goals. Oxfam calculates that a 60 percent tax on the incomes of the richest 1 percent would cut emissions by more than the total emissions of the UK and raise $6.4 trillion a year to pay for the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

“We must make the connection explicitly. Not taxing wealth allows the richest to rob us of a strong social safety net, ruin our planet and damage our democracy. Taxing extreme wealth transforms our chances to tackle both inequality and the climate crisis. These are trillions of dollars at stake to invest in dynamic 21st century green governments, but also to re-inject into our democracies,” said Ms Morgain.

Oxfam is calling on governments to:

  • Dramatically reduce poverty and inequality. Oxfam calculates that it would be possible, through a global redistribution of incomes, to provide everyone living in poverty with a minimum daily income of $25 while still reducing global emissions by 10 percent (roughly the equivalent of the total emissions of the European Union).
  • Get off fossil fuels quickly and fairly. Rich countries, including Australia, which are disproportionately responsible for global warming must end fossil fuel subsidies immediately, stop all new fossil fuel projects, and develop a plan to phase out all fossil fuels rapidly.
  • Support a just transition to climate change. Rich, high polluting countries, including Australia, must pay reparations to low-emitting developing countries most impacted by climate change and with few resources to adapt to the changes.
  • Introduce new taxes on corporations and billionaires. Funds raised can pay for the quick transition to renewable energy at home and for climate finance to developing countries.
  • Prioritise human and planetary well-being over endless profit, extraction and consumption. Stop using GDP growth as the measure of human progress.

Notes to editors 

Download “Climate Equality: A Planet for the 99%” and the methodology note. The Stockholm Environment Institute’s Emissions Inequality Dashboard is also available for consultation. 

Oxfam Australia has launched a petition to Make Rich Polluters Pay 

According to Our World in Data, road transport accounts for 15 percent of total CO2 emissions.  

According to SEI’s research, a person in the bottom 99 percent emits on average 4.1 tons of carbon a year. Richard Wilk and Beatriz Barros’ study of 20 of the world’s billionaires found that they emitted on average 8,194 tons CO2 equivalent per year. This includes all greenhouse gases, so when converted to CO2, this is approximately 5,959 tons CO2. 5,959 divided by 4.1 is 1,453.  

Oxfam’s research has shown that the investments of just 125 billionaires emit 393 million tonnes of CO2e each year —the equivalent of France— at an individual annual average that is a million times higher than someone in the bottom 90 percent of humanity. 

Oxfam water engineers are having to drill deeper, more expensive and harder-to-maintain water boreholes used by some of the poorest communities around the world, more often now only to find dry, depleted or polluted reservoirs. One in five water boreholes Oxfam digs now is dry or unfit for humans to drink. 

According to the UN, more than 91 percent of deaths caused by climate- and weather-related disasters over the past 50 years occurred in the Global South. Evidence shows that inequalities between rich and Global South countries are already 25 percent larger than they would be in a world without global warming. 

The World Bank has proposed to set a standard of prosperity at $25 per day. 

For interviews, contact Lucy Brown on 0478 190 099/ lucyb@oxfam.org.au

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