Oxfam Ireland Homepage
  • 6 min read
  • Published: 21st September 2020
  • Press Release by Caroline Reid

Governments must confront extreme carbon inequality

  • Richest one percent’s carbon emissions more than double those of the poorest half of humanity

  • Top 10 percent in Ireland emit almost as much emissions as the bottom 50 percent

The richest one percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than double the carbon pollution of the poorest half of humanity during a critical 25-year period of unprecedented emissions growth.

In Ireland, the top 10 percent of the Irish population emit nearly as much consumption emissions as the bottom 50 percent, despite there being five times more people in the bottom 50 percent - 2.3million people compared to 475,000.

Oxfam’s new report, Confronting Carbon Inequality, is based on research conducted with the Stockholm Environment Institute and is being released as world leaders prepare to meet at the United Nations General Assembly to discuss global challenges including the climate crisis.

Oxfam is calling on governments, including Ireland’s, to take into account the unequal distribution of consumption emissions among income groups, stating that it mirrors global inequality trends, whereby higher income groups expend significantly more carbon emissions than lower income groups. To achieve climate justice those most responsible for causing climate change, both around the world and in Ireland, have the most responsibility for addressing the twin crises of climate and inequality.

The report assesses the global consumption emissions of different income groups between 1990 and 2015 – 25 years when humanity doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Some findings included:   

  • The richest 10 percent accounted for over half (52 percent) of the emissions added to the atmosphere between 1990 and 2015. The richest one percent were responsible for 15 percent of emissions during this time – more than all the citizens of the EU and more than twice that of the 3.1 billion poorest half of humanity (seven percent).
  • During this time, the richest 10 percent blew one third of our remaining global 1.5C carbon budget, compared to just four percent for the poorest half of the population.
  • Annual emissions grew by 60 percent between 1990 and 2015. The richest five percent were responsible for over a third (37 percent) of this growth. The total increase in emissions of the richest one percent was three times more than that of the poorest 50 percent.

In Ireland, the findings based on 2015 data found:

  • The top 10 percent of the Irish population by income levels, emit over a quarter (26 percent) of consumption emissions, the middle 40 percent emits less than half (45 percent) of emissions, while the bottom 50 percent emits only 29 percent of emissions. Shares among these income groups have not changed markedly over the period 1990-2015.
  • The top 10 percent contributed about a third of the cumulative carbon emissions between 1990 and 2015 - almost as much as the bottom 50 percent (28 percent compared to 29 percent).
  • The top one percent has almost 13 times the average per capita carbon footprint of the bottom half of Irish citizens (66 tCO2 compared to 5 tCO2).  To put this in perspective we need to reach an average per capita carbon footprint of just 2.1 tCO2 by 2030 to achieve our Paris Agreement commitments and keep global heating on track to reach just 1.5C.

Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland, said: “Our report highlights the need for governments, including our own, to confront extreme carbon inequality. Until we do that, a wealthy minority will continue to enjoy the luxuries of over-consumption, fuelling the climate crisis at the expense of poor communities and our young people.

“During 2020, and with the world already heating up by around 1C, climate change has already fuelled deadly cyclones in India and Bangladesh, huge locust swarms that have devastated crops across Africa and unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires across Australia and the US.  No one is immune but it is the poorest and most marginalised people who are hardest hit.

“Simply rebooting our outdated, unfair, and polluting pre-Covid economies is no longer a viable option. Governments must seize this opportunity to reshape our economies and build a better tomorrow for us all.”

Carbon emissions are likely to rapidly rebound as governments ease Covid-related lockdowns. If emissions do not keep falling year on year and carbon inequality is left unchecked the remaining carbon budget for 1.5C will be entirely depleted by 2030. However, carbon inequality is so stark the richest 10 percent would blow the carbon budget by 2033 even if all other emissions were cut to zero.

As the Irish Government plans to ramp up climate action, Oxfam is calling on them to tackle both extreme inequality and the climate crisis by targeting the excessive emissions of the richest and investing in poor and vulnerable communities.

Oxfam Ireland is calling on the Irish Government to consider implementing a number of recommendations in the forthcoming budget, including:

  • Ensuring that all climate actions are equality proofed and mechanisms are in place to offset the significant negative impact of climate action on low-income groups 
  • Introduce focused policy measures targeting excessive and luxury emissions
  • End tax breaks for aircraft fuel and explore mechanisms to discourage frequent fliers 
  • Government bailouts and subsidies should end for sectors associated with luxury carbon consumption, and investment expanded in low carbon sectors like health and social care
  • New decent job guarantees should be designed for those sectors of the economy that will be most impacted by the transition to a post-carbon future

Download Oxfam’s Confronting Carbon Inequality report, including research and data as well as Oxfam Ireland’s Confronting Carbon Inequality in Ireland here.


CONTACT: For interviews or more information, please contact:

Caroline Reid | caroline.reid@oxfam.org | +353 (0) 87 912 3165

Notes to editor:

  • Full Irish and international briefings can be downloaded at this link: https://oxfam.box.com/s/73ftytr1l9ui9vbuhks2pgkgzhgbtl4h
  • The poorest 50 percent of humanity comprised approximately 3.1 billion people on average between 1990 and 2015, the richest 10 percent comprised approx. 630 million people, the richest 5 percent approx. 315 million people, and the richest one percent approximately 63 million people.
  • In 2015, around half the emissions of the richest 10 percent - people with net income over $38,000 - are linked to citizens in the US and the EU and around a fifth with citizens of China and India. Over a third of the emissions of the richest one percent – people with net income over $109,000 - are linked to citizens in the US, with the next biggest contributions from citizens of the Middle East and China. Net incomes are based on income thresholds for 2015 and represented in $ 2011 PPP (purchasing power parity).
  • The carbon budget is the amount of carbon dioxide that can be added to the atmosphere without causing global temperatures to rise above 1.5C – the goal set by governments in the Paris Agreement to avoid the very worst impacts of uncontrolled climate change.
  • 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.  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. National household consumption emissions estimates - for 117 countries from 1990 to 2015 - are then sorted into a global distribution according to income. More details on the methodology is available in the research report.
  • The Stockholm Environment Institute is an international non-profit research and policy organisation that tackles environment and development challenges.