Rich people from the U.S. emit more than rich people of other countries, but there’s more to it than just that

This weeks’ theme, for those who missed it, is news that’s not surprising to anyone.

Science, in theory, provides reliable information about reality because after someone conducts research and figures out something new, other scientists come along and test their results, using their instructions. This is a good system, and it has worked. That said, it’s also very often not what actually happens. Because of how our society is structured, if you want to do research, and you’re not independently wealthy, you have to convince someone with money to fund your work. More often than not, that means you have to make the case that your research, no matter what it’s about, is somehow vitally important to solving some contemporary problem. You can’t just look into the physiology of shrimp because there are unanswered questions, you have to convince someone that doing so will either make a lot of money, or will save the world. This leads to grandiose claims in some cases and fraud in others, but it also means that it’s often hard to get funding for research that has already been done. Reproducing the results of other researchers is generally not valued by people with money.

This means that mistakes and fraud can be overlooked until someone tries to apply the erroneous research to a new study, and reality disagrees with the hitherto accepted understanding. This is very like an attempt to reproduce the first study, but it’s less conclusive than doing so directly, and it can take years for such errors to come to light. That is why I’m generally in favor of research into “obvious” topics. Checking people’s work is good, and it makes it less likely that we’ll have policy inadvertently rooted in nonsense.

In the case of studies like this one, it’s also worth quantifying, because we live in a society that is both science-obsessed, and scientifically illiterate. Being able to cite a study that covers a specific topic like the relative emissions between different populations of rich people is sometimes the only way to get someone to admit that reality.

That rich people release more carbon than poor people is no surprise, but I find it valuable that this study compares income groups to each other and to comparable income groups in other countries.

This idea of “emissions inequality” underscores how nations that are contributing to climate change the most are disproportionately affecting regions that produce far less greenhouse gases. But the report by the World Inequality Lab also shows that the wealthiest citizens of the U.S. and other countries are more responsible for rising temperatures than people who earn less money in those same nations.

In North America, the top 10 percent of people by income produce nearly 73 tons of carbon dioxide per person annually. In Europe and East Asia, the top earners release 29 tons and 39 tons, respectively.

At the other end of the income spectrum, however, the bottom 50 percent of North Americans emit 10 tons per person annually. In Europe and East Asia, the same category of earners release 5 tons and 3 tons, respectively.

“It is striking that the poorest half of the population in the US has emission levels comparable with the European middle 40 percent, despite being almost twice as poor,” the report states.

One reason is because the U.S. energy mix is more carbon intensive and there is a greater reliance on bigger, less efficient vehicles.

The report finds that if total emissions were divided by the global population, each person would release roughly 6.6 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. That’s about twice as much as is required to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by midcentury and well above the 1.1 tons per person needed to hold warming to 1.5 C.

Average emissions vary greatly by regions. People in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, emitted just 1.6 tons of carbon in 2019 compared with 20.8 tons for each person living in North America.

But inequalities within countries are growing, a shift from 1990 when the average person in rich countries contributed more carbon pollution than anyone else worldwide, according to the report.

The top 10 percent of emitters today are responsible for nearly half of all CO2, while the bottom 50 percent produce just 12 percent of total carbon pollution, the report finds. And while per capita emissions have decreased for poorer people in rich countries, they have increased substantially among the world’s richest 1 percent.

“Global economic inequality fuels the ecological crisis and makes it much harder to address it,” World Inequality Lab co-Director Lucas Chancel said in a statement. “It’s hard to see how we can accelerate efforts to tackle climate change without more redistribution of income and wealth.”

Having those numbers is useful for the propaganda war. The whole notion of “carbon footprints” is, in my view, an effort to individualize a systemic, collective problem, and convince people that they have to achieve carbon neutrality themselves, within a society that makes it incredibly difficult to do so. In other words, it’s a way to slow or prevent action, and it’s a trick I’ve fallen for myself. Another part of that shifting of responsibility is best exemplified by the comparisons made between the United States and China. The U.S. has made some progress in slowing the growth in our emissions rate, and at the same time, China’s emissions have been rising. Once China became “the biggest emitter” in 2007, those opposing climate action in the U.S. began using that to distract from historic emissions, and to say that the U.S. shouldn’t have to do anything unless China did as much or more. The problem with this argument is that it ignores the way U.S. corporations moved their manufacturing to China, among other places. A sizable portion of China’s emissions come from the production of goods sold in the United States and other places around the world. Fortunately, this report actually tries to account for that, which gives us an adjusted emissions calculation that considers emissions taking place outside the borders of the country to which they are assigned, which also means accounting for emissions within a given country that are driven by a different country:

The emissions levels outlined in the report differ from the way countries typically count their carbon contributions under international compacts like the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The report includes emissions produced within a country—its “territorial emissions”—as well as those embedded in the goods and services that a country imports and consumes—what’s known as its “carbon footprint.”

Using that calculation, the report finds that Europe’s carbon footprint is 25 percent higher than its territorial emissions. The carbon footprint for East Asia, where the bulk of the world’s goods are produced, is 8 percent lower than its territorial emissions.

“Factoring in the carbon that is embedded in the consumption of goods and services increases the inequality between high- and middle- to low-income regions, compared with when we count territorial emissions only,” the report states.

It’s also the best way to measure emissions associated with different standards of living, it concludes.

“From an equity perspective, it probably does make sense to talk about the carbon that you’re consuming in your country,” said Aaron Cosbey, a senior associate and carbon market expert with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, who was not involved with the report.

Changing the way emissions are reported, however, would require agreement among all the countries involved. And there are winners and losers from moving to a different system.

It matters how we talk about things. It matters how we frame discussions. A “heartwarming story” about elderly people volunteering to help their favorite restaurants with a labor shortage can also be seen as people who don’t need money taking away leverage that those who do still need a paycheck to survive could have used to negotiate for a living wage.

It’s honestly encouraging to see an analysis like this that accounts for the degree to which the global economy is interconnected, and to which nations – especially the United States – literally externalize things like pollution.

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to the fiction.

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