Inequality and Responsibility


This section is unique in the sense that it evaluates our environmental impacts from a different perspective. In previous sections, the ‘blame’ for the environmental crisis was split between governments, companies, and individuals – and large-scale solutions were presented as the most important ones.

While that remains true, this section evaluates our impacts by shifting all the ‘blame’ onto individuals instead. This will help us find out which ‘categories’ of individuals have the highest impacts on the environment due to their unsustainable purchases and habits – even though this 100%-consumer-at-fault assumption isn’t very fair.

The Gap

Rich people emit more. So much more that as a group, the top 1% income earners are responsible for over twice the CO2 emissions of the lowest 50%. There’s even an enormous gap between the top 1% and 2-10%, as the 1% emit roughly half as much as the following group [despite being a much smaller group]. This shows that we can’t just blame population growth for the destruction of the environment – our unsustainable lifestyles are also a big problem.

Note that “income thresholds in 2015 are according to US$ purchasing power parity in 2011“:

  • 1 per cent > $109,000 USD
  • 10 per cent > $38,000 USD
  • middle 40 per cent > $6,000 USD
  • poorest 50 per cent < $6,000 USD

The figures above show that the top 1% income earners worldwide aren’t an elite club of billionaires. In developed countries, many individuals are part of the top 1% – and the vast majority of employed individuals are part of the top 10%.

The fact that the top income earners emit much more CO2 than others corroborates the fact that in 2010, just 10% of the population travelled 80% of the global population’s total motorized passenger-kilometers [i.e. distance travelled by passengers across all transport methods that use a motor].

What now?

The point of this section isn’t to blame and shame, it’s to show who has the most potential to reduce emissions. It’s almost reassuring that the top earners emit more, because they can afford to change their habits. The bottom 90% earners are too busy and too poor to live extravagantly polluting lifestyles – so there’s some form of justice that the top 10% need to get to work.

That’s easier said than done. Just like they can afford to lower their emissions, the highest income earners can also afford to avoid the consequences of climate change and pollution. “We’re all in this together” isn’t really accurate if only some people risk losing their livelihoods.

Luckily, better policies can help with that. Enforcing higher taxes for the top income earners is an obvious first step, but that’s doesn’t deal with unsustainable lifestyles. To manage that issue, governments can implement large-scale policies that aim to reduce individual impacts from non-essential activities [e.g. banning private planes, cruises, etc…].

Now this isn’t to say that the bottom 90% won’t benefit from lowering their emissions. On the contrary, CyclopediApp suggests many ways for everyone to save on their bills. Nonetheless, many solutions just won’t apply to the bottom earners, and that’s obviously not a problem.

To reach the +1.5°C  goal [purple line in graph], it’s estimated that the top 1% need to cut their emissions by 97% by 2030. The following 2-10% need an 89% drop. The middle 40% need to decrease CO2 emissions by 62%, while the bottom earners could afford to triple it.

Everyone can easily attain these goals within the given time frame, as the top earners have the resources to slash their emissions significantly. Using the solutions we’ve presented, you should be able to independently assess your emissions and potential sources for reduction, to make sure you’re at least doing your part for the 2030 goal. All the while advocating for change at larger scales of course.

Closing the Gap vs. A Shifting Baseline

Each decade, we consume more energy, extract more resources, and emit more GHGs than the last, even though we make ‘world-changing’ advances in efficiency frequently. So what gives?

Much of this is a result of the global middle class getting larger and wealthier. Although it seems like developed countries have reached a stable point in terms of energy demand, some developing countries are booming [in part due to delocalized industry – so not a completely fair assessment]. Their middle classes are getting wealthier, so they start to consume more, emit more, and pollute more. That doesn’t make them bad people or anything of the sort – developed countries’ populations went through the exact same process decades ago.

This only partly explains why we’re not reaching global consumption peaks. That part isn’t really a concern, we would hope that people around the world are able to increase their quality of life to a reasonable standard.

A reasonable standard. The lack of any type of moderation or ‘sobriety’ is the other part of the problem. We’ve gotten so used to making our lives easier with tools over thousands of years that we’ve never really considered what ‘enough’ would look like. For most of us who don’t think of the environmental impacts of our actions, it’s almost natural to consume more to make our lives easier – as long as we can afford it.

That’s especially the case when ads in the street, on our phones, during sporting events, between songs, or on our clothes keep pestering us to buy the latest products.

Unfortunately, combining this with growing middle classes in developed countries – we get completely useless gadgets being adopted in homes around the globe. What do you sell to someone who doesn’t need anything? Something they don’t need.

This has created a shifting baseline for what populations of overdeveloped countries consider to be an acceptable quality of life. What were once considered extravagant and unnecessary purchases decades ago have now become expected commodities in most homes [e.g. TVs, dryers, etc…]. And although some developed countries seem to have their energy demand or GHG emissions under control at a constant level [likely due to offshore industries], that’s not enough – we need reductions. And with global energy demand projected to increase by 30% from 2017-2040, that’s going to be a challenge.

To decrease our consumption and our emissions, we’ll first have to stabilize the shifting baseline. Large-scale solutions will have an important role to play in that regard. They’ll have to help focus research, energy, and finite resources on things that can help close the gap between the top and bottom earners of the world – as well as secure a sustainable future for present and upcoming generations.