Humanity emits tens of billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. However, the distribution of this emission is profoundly uneven.
A recent study published in the journal Nature Sustainability managed to quantify this inequality: a person living in sub-Saharan Africa emits an average of 0.6 ton of carbon dioxide per year, while an American emits 14.5 tons. If we rank each person in the world according to their emission, the top 1% emit 75 times more than the entire bottom half.
The novelty of the model considered by the study is that it includes consumption data instead of considering only local emission, since a considerable part of the emission of poorer countries is caused by the maintenance of consumption patterns of rich countries.
Clothing and other consumables produced in Southeast Asia, for example, generate a large amount of carbon emissions and various pollutants in the atmosphere and local aquifers. But the pace of production is maintained by the high consumption of fast-fashion (clothes that are used a few times and then discarded) around the world.
To take into account each individual’s consumption pattern in detail, therefore, the study authors divided each country studied into about 200 consumption categories and calculated how much carbon is emitted to maintain the standard of living in each category.
If inequality was already impressive studying different regions of the world, at an individual level this difference is even more shocking: while more than a million people in sub-Saharan Africa emit less than 0.01 ton of carbon per person each year, half a million of the world’s richest people emits hundreds of tons per person. In other words, the richest emit an amount more than ten thousand times greater than the poorest.
One of the difficulties of the study was to accurately trace the spending of the so-called “super-rich”, since part of the gains occur in the form of investments and part of the spending is done in relative secrecy. Other studies, however, estimate the expenditure of the richest at more than 1,000 tons a year, even higher than this estimate.
Another important issue addressed by the study refers to the environmental cost of eradicating poverty in the world, since the more a person earns, the more carbon they emit. As the United Nations (UN) categorizes anyone living on less than US$1.9 a day as extreme poverty (in 2014, more than a billion people were in this category, with most of them living in Africa and Southeast Asia), the authors built a simulation in which the population remained stable and each person who went on to earn more than US$1.9 (that is, who was lifted out of extreme poverty) assumed the consumption patterns of the people. who earn the equivalent in their country.
The conclusion is that eradicating extreme poverty in the world would increase carbon emissions by less than 1%. Another simulation done to estimate the environmental cost of eradicating poverty concluded that in this scenario, carbon emissions would increase by 18%. To eradicate poverty, 3.6 billion people living on less than US$5.5 a day would earn that amount.
To control the damage caused by global warming and keep the temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, the average emission per person over the next decade needs to be between 1.6 and 2.8 tons of carbon per year.
A fairer way to achieve this amount, therefore, would be to reduce the excesses of the “super-rich” and drive economic growth in the poorest regions with more environmentally responsible practices, but the conclusion is that there is room to improve the quality of life. who needs it.
There are those who argue that the consumption pattern of the richest is precisely what provides work for the poorest individuals in the world, and that without this consumption the situation in these countries would be even worse.
Returning to the fast-fashion example, a considerable percentage of clothing production is done by workers in unsanitary conditions, kept in poverty despite the intense workload. The production is of low quality and supplies a market based on the premise that the important thing is to always buy a new piece to follow fashion. Low quality is of little importance as clothes are made to be thrown away often, not to last.
Wouldn’t it be a better world in which people working in this industry were better paid, had time to spend with their families and lived in a less polluted environment, and the consumer paid a little more for better clothes that didn’t have to be replaced as often? ?