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

Updated: Sep 18

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