Poorer Europeans Cut Emissions as Richest Boost Transport Pollution (1)

By Mathew Carr

Nov. 8, 2020: LONDON — Emissions reductions by the EU since 1990 were achieved because of a fall in the greenhouse gas output of lower-and-middle-income Europeans, while pollution produced by the richest 10% rose, charity group Oxfam revealed.

Tackling an inequality of blame for the climate crisis is key to delivering the new EU 2030 climate target, which is due to be discussed by EU leaders later this week, the group said in a report.

Confronting Carbon Inequality in the European Union is based on research conducted with the Stockholm Environment Institute on the consumption emissions of different income groups between 1990 and 2015.  During this 25-year period, the data shows EU consumption emissions fell 12% while economic inequality increased.

Because the region imports goods, it effectively outsources emissions to other regions of the world. Consumption emissions are calculated according to where goods are consumed.

Carbon pricing or value-added-or-sales taxes have been touted by economists as measures that might improve equity by targeting those who pollute the most — as the EU and other regions of the world seek to rebuild their economies after the coronavirus pandemic to enhance the health of citizens and protect the environment.

Money raised by governments as they sell carbon allowances or raise taxes on dirty behavior can be recycled back to those most in need, Oxfam said.

Oxfam: see link above

European leaders will discuss a proposed 2030 territorial emission reduction target of 55% below 1990 levels by 2030 in the upcoming European Council meeting planned for Dec. 10-11.

Oxfam estimates that emission cuts of more than 65% are needed for Europe to contribute its fair share of the global reductions, needed to get on track to limit global heating to the 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement. The EU is home to 7% of the world’s population, yet it’s responsible for 15% of global consumption emissions.

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Here is an excerpt of the Oxfam statement:

·        The richest 10% of EU citizens were responsible for more than a quarter (27%) of EU emissions − the same amount as the poorest half of the EU population combined. The 40% of ‘middle income’ Europeans were responsible for 46% of emissions, and the richest 1% for 7% of emissions.

·        The poorest half of Europeans cut their emissions by almost a quarter (24%) and ‘middle-income’ citizens by 13%. By contrast, the richest 10% of Europeans increased their emissions by 3% and the richest 1% saw an increase of 5%. 

·        To stay on track for global heating of no more than 1.5C, the carbon footprint of the richest 10% of Europeans must be ten times smaller by 2030, and that of the richest 1% 30 times less than now. By contrast, the footprint of the poorest 50% must be halved. 

Oxfam’s head of climate policy and report co-author, Tim Gore, said: “EU carbon reductions have been delivered by poorer Europeans while the richest have had a free ride. But now everyone must pull their weight to achieve the deeper emission cuts needed over the next decade.

“Carbon inequality could derail Europe’s climate targets unless EU leaders take a joined-up approach to both cut emissions and tackle inequality. The yellow vest protests in France show how quickly climate policies can unravel if they are not built on principles of fairness and justice,” added Gore.

The report reveals stark carbon inequality within, as well as between, EU member states. The richest 10% of citizens in Germany, Italy, France, and Spain (approx. 25.8m people) are collectively responsible for the same amount of emissions as the entire population of 16 EU member states combined (approx. 84.8m people).  However, rocketing inequality and a reliance on coal means the richest 10% of citizens in Poland (approx. 3.8m people) – a relatively poorer country – are responsible for more emissions than the entire population of countries like Sweden (approx. 9.8m people) or Hungary (approx. 9.9m people).

Air travel and car journeys are responsible for the largest share − around 30-40% − of the carbon footprint of the highest emitting Europeans. Home heating is the biggest contributor to the footprints of lower income groups. Transport emissions have increased significantly in all but two EU Member States since 1990 and are responsible for around a quarter of all EU emissions. This is in part because of the growth in demand for polluting luxury vehicles such as SUVs which account for a third of new cars sold in the EU today.

During 2020, and with just 1°C of global heating, the climate crisis has fuelled floods and heatwaves across Europe, deadly hurricanes in Central America, huge locust swarms which have devastated crops across East Africa, and unprecedented wildfires in Australia and the US. No one is immune to these crises but it is the poorest and most marginalised people who are hit hardest.

Oxfam is calling for the EU to use the European Green Deal legislative package to fight inequality, cut emissions, and boost the economic recovery from COVID-19.

Gore said: “The EU Green Deal can target the emissions of the richest while directly benefiting lower income Europeans. It’s time to ban SUVs, tax aviation fuel, and invest in housing renovation and public transport to end fuel poverty, create millions of decent jobs, and cleaner air for all.”

“An ambitious 2030 climate target coupled with a fair European Green Deal will help Europe bounce back from the COVID-19 crisis with more sustainable and resilient economies that work for everyone,” added Gore.

Sivan Kartha, Senior Scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute said: “The extreme income inequality which plagues countries in the EU and across the globe has led to enormous disparities in consumption, resource use, and – as our research shows – carbon emissions. It is mind-boggling that even though emissions have modestly declined over the last 30 years, the emissions of its richest residents have stubbornly continued to rise. The climate problem can’t be solved if luxury consumption continues to grow and if poverty remains unaddressed. It is neither mathematically or politically realistic.”


  • The report “Confronting Climate Inequality in the European Union” is available for download.
  • The research is based on estimations of consumption emissions from fossil fuels i.e. emissions consumed within a country including emissions embodied in imports and excluding emissions embodied in exports. The EU is a net importer of emissions, with slightly higher consumption than production emissions.
  • National consumption emissions were divided between individual households based on the latest income distribution datasets and a functional relationship between emissions and income. This assumes, on the basis of numerous studies, that emissions rise in proportion to income above a minimum emissions floor and until a maximum emissions ceiling. European wide figures collate the data on different income groups from 27 member states – excluding the UK. More details on the methodology is available in the research report.
  • The richest 1% of Europeans – a subset of the richest 10% – have an annual income over €89,000 a year (as of 2015), the richest 10% have an income over €41,000 a year, the middle 40% have an income between €20,000 and €40,999 a year, and the poorest half of Europeans an income of up to €19,999 a year.
  • European leaders will discuss a proposed 2030 territorial emission reduction target of 55% below 1990 levels by 2030 in the upcoming European Council meeting (10 – 11 December). Oxfam estimates that cuts of more than 65% are needed for Europe to contribute its fair share of the global reductions needed to get on track to limit global heating to the 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement. The EU is home to 7% of the world’s population yet responsible for 15% of global consumption emissions.
  • The Stockholm Environment Institute is an international non-profit research and policy organisation.

(Updates Tuesday with context, additional information.)

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