IEA (2023), The world’s top 1% of emitters produce over 1000 times more CO2 than the bottom 1%, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/commentaries/the-world-s-top-1-of-emitters-produce-over-1000-times-more-co2-than-the-bottom-1, Licence: CC BY 4.0
CO2 emissions are highly unequal across income groups and regions
Wealth, energy use, and the consumption of goods and services are unevenly distributed across the world. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are no exception. Emissions vary across countries and across generations, but even more so across income groups.
This commentary is part of the IEA’s ongoing work to explore people-centred energy transitions, including analysis on universal energy access and just transitions for energy sector workers. The analysis quantifies the emissions footprints of individuals by income, focusing on energy-related CO2 emissions. Emissions are adjusted for trade to reflect the upstream effects of individuals’ consumption patterns.
In 2021, the average North American emitted 11 times more energy-related CO2 than the average African. Yet variations across income groups are even more significant. The top 1% of emitters globally each had carbon footprints of over 50 tonnes of CO2 in 2021, more than 1 000 times greater than those of the bottom 1% of emitters. Meanwhile, the global average energy-related carbon footprint is around 4.7 tonnes of CO2 per person – the equivalent of taking two round-trip flights between Singapore and New York, or of driving an average SUV for 18 months. These large contrasts reflect great differences in income and wealth, and in lifestyles and consumption patterns.
Globally, the top 10% of emitters were responsible for almost half of global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2021, compared with a mere 0.2% for the bottom 10%. The top 10% averaged 22 tonnes of CO2 per capita in 2021, over 200 times more than the average for the bottom 10%. There are 782 million people in the top 10% of emitters, extending well beyond traditional ideas of the super rich. By comparison, around 0.6% of the world – an estimated 46.8 million individuals – are considered millionaires or billionaires.
The top 10% of emitters span all continents. Around 85% of them live in advanced economies – including Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, United States, and United Kingdom – and also in China. The rest are from the Middle East, Russia, and South Africa, in countries with relatively high income and wealth inequality and emissions-intensive fuel mixes. The bottom 10% of emitters globally live in developing economies in Africa and Asia, where they consume relatively small amounts of goods and services, and in many cases lack access to electricity and clean cooking.
A closer look at income groups reveals even more dramatic disparities towards the top of the curve. As the Stockholm Environment Institute estimates, the richest 0.1% of the world’s population emitted 10 times more than all the rest of the richest 10% combined, exceeding a total footprint of 200 tonnes of CO2 per capita annually. Within this 0.1% are the billionaires and multimillionaires whose emissions-intensive super-yachts, private jets, and mansions have attracted the attention of climate activists.
Income disparities vary across energy uses, with personal transport being the most unequal
Individual emissions can broadly be broken down into household consumption (all electricity and fuel use within the residence), personal transport (passenger and non-freight use of road, rail, aviation and shipping), and emissions embodied in the goods and services consumed. Household heat and electricity consumption, a portion of which is an essential energy service for all individuals, is more uniform across income groups. Meanwhile, energy related to personal transport sees particularly high disparities across major economies.
Within transport, aviation-related emissions are especially unequal. Around 90% of the global population flies only once a year or not at all, whereas around 6% fly more than twice a year and just 1% fly more than five times a year. Given the space requirements of plane seats, passengers in premium classes consume three times more oil than passengers in economy class. As such, in some regions, the top decile’s emissions from aviation are higher than the bottom decile’s entire footprint.
Individuals’ emissions vary widely within countries
While the disparities of emissions footprints between countries remain profound, a few years ago, gaps in greenhouse gas emissions within countries and regions started becoming even more significant than those between countries.
In the United States, the richest decile emits over 55 tonnes of CO2 per capita each year. Compared with other regions, road transport makes up an especially high share – one-quarter – of the top decile’s carbon footprint. In the European Union, the richest decile emits around 24 tonnes of CO2 per capita. Every EU income group has lower footprints than its US equivalent, in part thanks to less emissions-intensive power grids. But internal inequalities are similarly large within both the United States and the European Union. In both, the top decile emits between three-to-five times more than the median individual and around 16 times more than the poorest decile. Even so, the poorest 10% in countries including the United States, Canada, Japan, and Korea still emit more than the global median individual.
In China, the richest decile emits almost 30 tonnes of CO2 per capita each year, while in India, the richest decile emits just 7 tonnes of CO2 per capita. Following a period of rapid economic development, China’s top decile now emits 30% more than a decade ago. Emissions inequalities in China and India – as well as in other developing economies across Latin America, Africa, and Asia – are higher than in advanced economies, with the top decile’s emissions between five-to-eight times more than the median.
The richest individuals have many ways to reduce their emissions
If the top 10% of emitters globally maintain their current emissions levels from now onwards, they alone will exceed the remaining carbon budget in the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario by the year 2046. In other words, substantial and rapid action by the richest 10% is essential to decarbonise fast enough to keep 1.5°C warming in sight.
The richest group often has the largest financial means to adopt energy-efficient and low-emissions solutions that involve high upfront costs. In doing so, they form the initial customer base that can help enable the manufacturing of these technologies to be brought to scale. For example, a large share of electric vehicles were purchased by high-income individuals at first, but as sales increase with models at varied price points, EVs are becoming more ubiquitous. Certain airlines offer optional offsets that fund the research and development of sustainable aviation fuels, targeting passengers with higher willingness to pay. The investment choices of wealthy individuals also have a systemic impact on the development of clean energy solutions.
Individual behaviour changes in energy use can also help to reduce emissions: regulating temperatures for space heating (targeting an average of 19-20°C where feasible), replacing short-haul flights with high-speed rail, reducing long-haul flights for business meetings, phasing out internal combustion engine cars with low-emissions cars, urban ride-sharing car trips, and driving in a fuel-efficient way e.g., reducing motorway speeds to less than 100 kilometres per hour, eco-driving, and reducing air conditioning use in cars.
The IEA will continue to deepen its analysis on inequalities in energy transitions, including with further exploration of how inequalities evolve over time in upcoming publications.
Methodological note: For this analysis, starting with IEA energy balances and CO2 data, we map on weightings of emissions across income group by region and sector. The weightings are based on household expenditure data of 25 major advanced and developing economies, as well as the World Inequality Database of income and wealth distributions by country. Adjustments are made to reflect consumption-based rather than territorial CO2, based on estimates of emissions in trade by Our World in Data. The analysis accounts for energy-related CO2, and not other greenhouse gases, nor those related to land use and agriculture.
Calculations are done for the 26 regions defined in the IEA’s Global Energy and Climate Model, of which 12 are individual countries. The first figure in this commentary brings together the deciles from each of the 26 regions.