Climate, inequality and class struggle

During the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in early November, a shocking piece information was given to the delegates by the director of the Potsdam Institute (PIK), Johan Rockström: to stay below 1.5°C of warming while respecting climate justice, the richest 1% of the world population must divide its emissions by thirty by 2030; the poorest 50%, on the other hand, will be able to multiply them by three.

To measure the impact of these figures, we must take into account that they were delivered to official delegations by a leading scientist summarizing the ten most recent conclusions of climate change science. The press service of the PIK having told me the source of the director’s statement, I immersed myself in the reference article, to find out more. This is a study commissioned by Oxfam and carried out by Tim Gore, a former head of the NGO, who recently became head of the low-carbon and circular economy department at the European Institute for Environmental Policy.1 Its content deserves both wide dissemination and critical examination.

The theme of climate injustice is generally addressed by country, according to the historical responsibilities of the North and the global South: the former is rich and responsible, the latter is poor and a victim. However, poor Americans or Europeans are not rich and rich Chinese, or Indians are not poor... Oxfam's study strives to integrate this class reality. This is its major advantage. But let's start by presenting the methodology employed.


The author compares CO2 emissions in the sphere of consumption. Releases are therefore attributed to the country where the goods and services are consumed, not to the countries where they are produced. They are expressed in tonnes of CO2 per person per year, a figure obtained by dividing the emissions of the country under consideration by population. The result includes all emission sources: households, businesses, public services, but is adjusted for the results of national surveys on household living conditions.2 This correction makes it possible to understand climate inequality not only in North-South terms but also in terms of the poor and rich within countries, whether the latter are poor or rich. The text also stresses the growing importance of this approach: “While carbon inequality is often most stark at the global level, inequalities within countries are also very significant. They increasingly drive the extent of global inequality, and likely have a greater impact on the political and social acceptability of national emissions reduction efforts. (Emphasis added, DT). We will come back later to this point, which is obviously of strategic importance in the fight for the climate.

Climate policy widens inequalities

We have an estimate of the shares of current emissions attributable to the consumption of the different groups of the population: the richest 1%, the richest 10%, the “middle” income 40% and the poorest 50%. On the basis of the “Nationally Determined Contributions” of states and the new commitments they made just before COP26, we can estimate the likely volume of emissions in 2030, and therefore also the deviation of this volume from the reduction trajectory to be followed to reach “net zero emissions” in 2050. It is also possible to estimate the likely evolution of the shares of emissions of each income group, to relate them to the number of people in each group, and thus obtain the average volumes of emissions per person and per group, at the global and national levels. Finally, these volumes can be compared to the average individual emission volume globally compatible with the target of 1.5°C maximum: 2,3 tonnes of CO2/person/year.3 In this way, we do more than visualize the current climate injustice; we can see in what direction the current policy will make it evolve by 2030, globally and by group.

The results can be summarized in table form:

Classes (*) Approximate number of persons Average income/pers/year Share of global emissions in 1990 Share of global emissions in 2030 Difference 2030 compared to 2.3 tCO2/pers/year
1% 79 million >$172,000 13% 16% + 67.7 tCO2/pers/year
10% 790 million >$55,000 37% 32% + 18.7 tCO2/pers/year
40% 1.975 billion >$9,800 42% 43% + 2.5 tCO2/pers/year
50% 3.4 billion <$9,800 8% 9% -x (**)


(*) The 1% is included in the 10%.

(**) The 50% is well below 2.3tCO2/pers/year. According to the study, they would remain so even if their emissions increased by 200% by 2030.

In order not to misinterpret these figures, we must stress that we are not assessing social inequality here but carbon inequality. Thus, the expected decline in 2030 in the share of global emissions attributable to the 10% obviously does not stem from the fact that the rich will be less rich in a decade. Rather, it expresses the fact that members of the global 10% group live mainly in developed capitalist countries where carbon intensity will decline faster than in the rest of the world, and that they have, more than others, the means to acquire green technologies. We will come back later on how to interpret the fact that the share of emissions of the 1% of the very rich continues to grow.

For now, let's focus on the very rich and the poor. The study confirms what Oxfam has been saying for years: the richest 1% of the world's population emits almost twice as much CO2 as the poorest 50%. But we also note that the climate policies followed by governments since COP21 (2015, Paris) deepen this injustice: indeed, the share of global emissions attributable to the consumption of the richest 1%, from 13% in 1990 to 15% in 2015, will continue to climb to 16% in 2030. It will then be 25% higher than it was in 1990, and sixteen times higher than the overall average. In 2030, each person belonging to the global group of the very rich will emit more than thirty times the 2.3 tonnes of CO2 / person and per year compatible with the respect of the maximum 1.5° C. The poorest 50%, on the other hand, will see little change: their share of global emissions will rise from 8% to 9% per year and their per capita emissions will remain well below 2.3 tonnes of CO2/person/year.

Emission reduction is inversely proportional to income

The image of a worsening of global climate injustice since COP21 is revealed when we compare the evolution from 2015 to 2030 of the emissions per person of each group (as they emerge from the current policies), with the evolution that these emissions per group should follow to remain below the 1.5° C of warming in climate justice

Classes Evolution of emissions per capita 2015-2030 based on current policies Evolution of emissions per capita 2015-2030 compatible with climate justice
1% -5% -97%
10% -11% -90%
40% -9% -57%
50% 17% 233%


Overall, per capita emissions in 2030 will be 7% lower than in 2015 (if states respect their commitments!) We know that this reduction is much lower than the average reduction per person required to stay below 1.5°C: 52%. The new element that appears here is that, in addition to aggravating global inequality, the effort in governmental climate policies is inversely proportional to income: the richest 1% will make the twentieth (97/5), the richest 10% the eighth (90/11), and the 40% of average incomes the sixth (57/9) of what climate justice should dictate. There are therefore both injustices between these three classes (the 40% of “average” incomes are closest to the goal) and an even greater injustice because half of the world's population will in 2030 use only one-third of the carbon budget to which they would be entitled if the principle of “differentiated responsibilities and capacities” were respected (233/17).4

The evolution of the shares of emissions attributable to the richest 10% (between $55,000 and $172,000/year) and the 40% whose income is said to be “average” (between $9,800 and $55,000/year) deserves attention. These two categories include substantial fractions, or even the majority, of employees in the developed capitalist countries and in the so-called “emerging” capitalist countries, respectively.5 The study includes a very illuminating graph comparing three trajectories of evolution of emissions per capita according to income – from the poorest among the poor to the richest among the rich: the trajectory from 1990 to 2015, the trajectory from 2015 to 2030 and the trajectory from 2015 to 2030 compatible with the maximum 1.5°C in climate justice.

The double conclusion of the study is striking:

1) “the global middle classes (the 40%) who saw their emission rates grow the fastest during the years 1990-2015 will undergo the most significant reversal of trend during the years 2015-2030”;In 2015–30, the global ‘middle classes’ are on course for per capita emissions

cuts that are closest to (though still far from) the global 1.5⁰C-compatible per capita level – which, given this global income group saw the fastest emissions growth rates in 1990–2015, is a sign of the so-called ‘Paris effect’ in transforming the course of emissions trends.”

2) the deepest emission reductions will come from citizens with the lowest incomes in rich countries.

Promises of a “just transition”: smoke and mirrors

Posing climate injustice in terms of income groups makes it possible to grasp realities that escape analysis when the question is approached simply in terms of rich and poor countries. In particular, this highlights the growing responsibility of the rich, and especially the very rich, not only in the North but also in the global South. As the study puts it, “It is therefore notable that in all of the major emitting countries, the richest 10% and 1% nationally are set to have per capita consumption footprints substantially above the 1.5⁰C global per capita level.” (Emphasis added, DT). Let's take a closer look:

  1. India is the only major emitting country in which average per capita emissions in 2030 will remain below the 2.3 tonnes of CO2/person/year corresponding to the maximum 1.5°C. It is also the only one where the emissions of the poorest 50% will remain well below this level. But the emissions of the richest 10% of Indians will exceed the latter by five times, and those of the richest 1% more than twenty times.
  2. The poorest 50% of Americans will only slightly exceed the threshold of 2.3 tCO2/person/year, but the richest 1% will emit on average fifty-five times more (127 tonnes) and the richest 10% fifteen times more (about 35 t).
  3. In China, the emissions of the poorest 50% will remain below the fateful mark in 2030, but those of the richest 10% will be more than ten times above and those of the richest 1% more than thirty times above (82 tonnes).
  4. The projections for the European Union and Great Britain are also very instructive: in 2030, the emissions of the poorest 50% will approach the global average volume compatible with 1.5°C... but those of the richest 10% will be five to six times above, and those of the 1% more than fifteen times above.

This data makes it abundantly clear that the “just transition” commitments included in the official COP resolutions are nothing but smoke and mirrors. Blah blah blah. In reality, there is a double movement: 1) climate injustice is deepening and 2) the super-rich/super-polluter class is recomposing due to the rise of capital in Asia. Within this group, it is no exaggeration to speak of a tipping point. In 2015, in fact, the richest 1% of the planet emitted 15% of global CO2. The rich Chinese contributed 14%, rich Americans 37%, rich Europeans 11% and rich Indians 5%. According to the study's projections, by 2030, the richest 1% will have further increased their share of global CO2: 16%. But the rich Chinese will contribute 23%, rich Americans 19%, rich Europeans 4% and rich Indians 11%.6

Summary in the table below:

  Share of global CO2 emitted by the richest 1% in 2015 Share of global CO2 emitted by the richest 1% in 2030
World 15% 16%
China 14% 23%
USA 37% 19%
EU 11% 4%
India 5%| 11%


The author of the study does not note this, but it is also striking to observe that, at the other end of the income pyramid, there is a fairly clear convergence of carbon footprints: the 50% of poor people in the United States, the European Union, Great Britain and China will emit per capita, in 2030, a relatively similar amount of CO2, a little higher or a little lower than 2.3t/pers/year.7

An incomplete image

Despite its great interest, however, the Oxfam study does not give a complete picture of the climate responsibilities of different income classes. It is more than likely that it underestimates the emissions attributable to the richest, but also that it overestimates the emissions attributable to the 40% of average incomes, and even to a fringe of the 10% of the rich. There are indeed two difficulties.

First, the emissions attributable to the richest 1% are as difficult to find as their assets, and for the same reason: banking secrecy, tax evasion and the absence of a cadastre of assets. The author notes: “While there are robust methods to estimate individual footprints by applying carbon emissions coefficients to the goods and services reported in household surveys, these are widely recognized to under-represent the consumption of the world’s richest citizens.” To overcome this problem, the study is based on the work of researchers who have highlighted various realities. For example:

  1. available data on cars, houses, planes and yachts indicate that emissions from billionaire consumption easily reach several thousand tonnes of CO2/pers/year. Superyachts, whose sales are exploding in the context of the pandemic, are the main sources of these emissions (a super yacht emits about 7,000 tons of CO2 / year);
  2. transportation is the biggest source of emissions. In particular, air transport: according to some studies, 50% of passenger flights are made by 1% of the world's population. Based on the travels of celebrities, we can consider that the “plane” footprint of the richest reaches several thousand tons of CO2 / year. The insane development of “space tourism”" can obviously only amplify the trend.8

However, this hyper-consumption of great luxury is only the tip of the iceberg. It does not capture the emissions attributable to the capitalist investments of the richest 1%. The author incorporates works that estimate at 70% the share of the carbon footprint of the richest resulting from their capitalist investments. But this is only an estimate, complicated by the opacity of the financial sector.

Secondly, even applying the above-mentioned carbon factor to household emissions, spreading corporate and public sector emissions across the population is questionable. This does not take into account the fact – mentioned in the study – that the largest emitters of CO2 (the richest 1%) exert “a disproportionate influence of high-income high emitters resulting from their status as role models and, critically, their political power and access to decision makers.”. To take an example: the airport project in Notre-Dame-des-Landes in France met the needs of Vinci and its shareholders, not those of the working classes. The same reasoning applies to military spending and a number of projects, not to mention public subsidies to companies.

Limitations of consumption-based analysis

Here we touch on the limits of an approach to climate catastrophe through the consumption of different income categories. In reality, since all consumption presupposes production, the consumption levels of income groups must be analysed in the light of the positions these groups occupy in production. The “disproportionate influence” of the richest 1% is found everywhere because the members of this group own the means of production. They are the ruling class, and the state is the instrument of their domination. The popular classes are in a completely different situation: they suffer from the decisions of companies and institutions over which they have no control, and who produce beyond their needs, for the profit of the capitalists. They therefore bear a volume of emissions that results from the productivist dynamics of capital, not from their free will.

Faced with the mystification of the dominant discourse that indiscriminately urges us to “change our behaviour”, Oxfam's study has the great merit of shining a spotlight on the enormous inequalities in consumption and expressing these in terms of responsibilities for CO2 emissions. In addition, it highlights that governments policies, despite the blah blah blah about the “just transition”, deepen climate injustice.

At the same time, it is quite easy to see that the solution cannot come from measures taken within the sphere of consumption alone. Let us make the absurd assumption that, by 2030, the richest 1% or the 10% of the rich will have reduced their emissions to 2.3 tCO2/person/year. In this case, it would still be necessary, to stay in the frame of 1.5 ° C, that the 40% of the so-called “middle class” divide their emissions by more than two in the European Union and Great Britain, by three in China, and by about four in the United States.9 How? Although indispensable, the radical redistribution of wealth (as proposed by Thomas Piketty), would not solve the problem – it would only displace it. The challenge can only be met by redefining the real needs of the social majority, organizing production accordingly, and eliminating unnecessary and harmful production.

“Social acceptability” evokes the arduousness of the efforts to be endured. For the greatest number, it is a repellent. Profound changes are certainly needed, and it is not enough to “make the rich pay”. But we must dare to reason in terms of “desirability". Produce less, for need; transport less, work less, share more; take care of people and ecosystems; manage resources soberly, collectively and democratically, to live a good and comfortable life for all: this is the eco-socialist perspective that can underpin a plan for anti-capitalist structures adapted to the 21st century. For one thing is certain: there is no way out without questioning competition for profit, the engine of productivism based on capitalist property rights.

8 December 2021

Translated by from Gauche Anticapitaliste

  • 1….
  • 2By applying a “carbon coefficient” to goods and services consumed.
  • 3For a population of 7.9 billion in 2030.
  • 4The author thus consolidates the conclusion he had reached in a previous publication: a third of the carbon budget compatible with the Paris Agreement is wasted in extending the consumption of the richest 10% of the world’s population.
  • 5Expressed in full time equivalent, the average annual gross income of employees is around $44,000/year in western Europe, $63,000/year in the USA. According to the sources, it varies between $9,200/year and $14,000/year in China, Brazil and South Africa.
  • 6Given the importance of coal in China and India this change in the “geography of global carbon inequality”, as the study puts it, could help explain why the share of global emissions of the 1% will continue to grow, unlike that of the 10%.
  • 7India is the only big emitter country where emissions of 50% will remain much lower than 2.3t – at the same level as in the “developing countries”.
  • 8Given the dependence of air transport on fossil fuels, the intensive use of planes by the 1% could be a second explanation of why the share of global emissions of this group will continue to increase, unlike those of the 10%.
  • 9India is the only big emitting country where emissions of 40% will remain below 2.3tCO2/person/year in 2030, according to the study.

Daniel Tanuro