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Living in the era of carbon inequality: Sharing out the global carbon budget

Updated: Sep 18, 2022

The first week at #COP26 has brought some big announcements on reducing carbon emissions and an early indication that commitments, particularly from China and India, could bring projected temperature increases below 2 degrees for the first time.

However, challenges remain to drive that down even further to 1.5 degrees and accelerate progress between now and 2030.

Right now, the stark reality is that we are overshooting the global carbon budget to reach 1.5 and that those with the most resources - both nations and individuals - are continuing to emit carbon at a rate that doesn't leave very much to go around for everyone else.

How can individuals, businesses, and governments work together to ensure that the road to Net Zero boosts the global economy and moves us towards sustainable growth?

How fast do we need to cut carbon emissions, and why?

Globally the carbon budget is finite, and we have already used most of it. Thus the push to cut carbon emissions.

The UK newspaper The Guardian has put together a helpful guide to carbon emissions and the need for speed.

"If we hit the end of the budget without having cut emissions at all, by about 2029 we would have to eliminate all carbon emissions within a single year." The Guardian


It's clear that we are facing a collective cliff edge, and it will need a combination of policy, business and consumer practice implemented now to move the deadline back.

Speaking at COP last week, OECD Director Mathias Cormann, Australia's former finance minister, urged countries to stop subsiding fossil fuel and turn commitments into tangible outcomes.

OECD data shows that direct support for fossil fuel production across 50 advanced and emerging economies increased by 5% in 2020, partly due to government responses to COVID, including support for state oil and electricity companies.

“Too many policies still encourage emissions-intensive investment, production and consumption." Mathias Cormann, OCED Director

The age of carbon inequality?

As we enter into the second week of COP, one of the most pressing questions is how we can speed up the reduction of carbon emissions globally and how to address the carbon inequalities within and especially between countries.

The 2020 Report on Carbon Inequality from the Stockholm Environment Institute and Oxfam assessed the increase in carbon emissions from 1990 to 2015 as 60%. It then mapped these against global income distribution.

  • Nearly HALF of the total growth in absolute emission was due to the wealthiest 10% (which means earning around $38,000 a year), and the wealthiest 5% alone contributed over a third (37%).

  • The top 1% of income earners - earning over $109,000 per year - single-handedly were responsible for 15% of global emissions.

  • The middle 40% were responsible for most of the other half, while the poorest half of the global population contributed only 7%.

Madagascar - the sharp end of carbon inequality

As #COP26 opened, Madagascar was several months into what experts are calling the first climate change-induced famine.

Southern Madagascar is experiencing the island's worst drought in 40 years, and hundreds of thousands are experiencing famine. The island's south now routinely records temperatures of 45 degrees C, with rainfall very rare.

Attending #Cop26, Madagascar's Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development, Baomiavotse Vahinala Raharinirina, drew a direct link between the failure of rich countries to deliver climate finance and to change behaviours.

Ms Raharinirina cited the US$9million needed to pump water from northern Madagascar to the south, which the country cannot afford, and she also spoke of her shock at the continued use of short flights across Europe and elsewhere and the lack of connection being drawn between this and temperature rises in countries like Madagascar.

"It’s a high-cost flight for people in my country. They pay the price of that."

Responsible carbon budgeting for individuals and organisations

From the macro to the micro-level - responsible carbon budgeting is one of the areas where individuals and individual organisations can make a difference.

Our global carbon budget stands at around 750 billion tonnes of CO₂ until 2050. If we divide up this amount of carbon emissions equally between every person on earth (a projected 8.2 million), each individual is limited to 2.3 tonnes/year. Currently, the (global) average person produces 4.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

So while our daily habits and operational plans may seem unconnected to the media coverage of the Madagasi drought and famine, in reality, they are.

Consequently, for every climate-positive decision we make as an individual or organisation, carbon can stay in the '' global bank''. Through individual/organisational effort, we can collectively push back the end date for the depletion of the global carbon budget.

While businesses and organisations may feel overwhelmed by the language used, the range of sustainability options available, and how they connect with their strategy, supply, and value chains, our advice is just to start your journey. Begin by simply focusing on your carbon emissions which you can track through your whole business.

From this simple step, you will find you can impact the bottom line, saving money while becoming more sustainable. From here, you can undertake further sustainable development initiatives, helping to not only achieve action on climate change (SDG13) but responsible consumption and production (SDG12), reduced inequalities (SDG10 and so on.

#COP26 is billed as the last opportunity to turn the corner on net zero. It is also the opportunity to chart a course to deliver on the promises made in the Paris Agreement to the 50% of the global population who have contributed virtually none of the carbon emissions but who are at the receiving end of the impacts.

Contact us

In this decade of action, there is much work to be done - governments, individuals, businesses and not-for-profits, all need to take a leadership role and be responsible. Creating a carbon budget is just one aspect of a larger journey that organisations can make.

As a sustainability consultancy, we ensure our support to clients is data and evidence-driven and focused on collaborations and partnerships (SDG17). This approach empowers SMEs, social enterprises and corporate foundations to shift rapidly to achieve clear sustainability goals.

To learn more about SDG Changemakers and how we support organisations to transition to sustainable business models - get in touch.

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