Sacred Headwaters #43: Carbon Colonialism Pt 2 - Carbon Inequality
Historical emissions demonstrate how culpable certain nation states are. Current emissions don't change that picture much, but they do show us that borders aren't the only key: wealth is, too.
Sacred Headwaters is a bi-weekly newsletter that aims to guide a co-learning process about the existential issues and planetary limitations facing humanity and about how we can reorient civilization in a way that will enable us to thrive for centuries to come. If you’re just joining us, consider checking out the first issue for some context and head over to our new table of contents to browse the whole library. The newsletters are not strictly sequential, but this exploration is meant to build on knowledge and understanding over time. Subscribe below if you haven’t already, and please share with friends, family, and colleagues who may be interested:
Table of Contents
Sacred Headwaters has a rudimentary table of contents intended to allow readers to “catch up” more effectively, facilitate using Sacred Headwaters as a reference, and give a better picture of what the newsletter is about for those who are just joining us.
Issue #43: Carbon Colonialism Pt 2 - Carbon Inequality
This is the second issue in a series of four on “carbon colonialism.” In this series, we’re looking at the unequal distribution of culpability for climate change, both historically and in the present. We’re also looking at how the climate crisis is being exploited to develop new forms of colonial relationships between the north and south.
Issue #42: Carbon Colonialism Pt 1 - Historical Emissions (Nov 29th, 2021)
Issue #43: Carbon Colonialism Pt 2 - Carbon Inequality (Dec 13th, 2021)
Issue #44: Carbon Colonialism Pt 3 - Carbon Markets (Jan 9th, 2022)
Issue #45: Carbon Colonialism Pt 4 - Carbon Outsourcing (Jan 23rd, 2022)
Historical emissions paint a bleak picture: most analyses demonstrate that climate change has been caused almost entirely by the wealthy countries of the global north (former imperial states and settler colonial states) and, effectively, perpetrated on the south. Current emissions as assessed by nation state paint a similar picture, but it’s complicated by the fact that many northern countries are beginning to see their emissions shrink (with Canada being the most notable exception to this trend). Not on the scale or pace that they need to shrink, of course, but at least they’re shrinking, while the emissions of many southern countries, especially so-called “emerging markets” like India and China, are growing rapidly.
Historical culpability and the relationship between GDP and cumulative historical emissions mean that developing countries ought to have every right to increase their emissions in the near-term in order to develop economically, and many global south activists have highlighted this as a big issue with the “net zero by 2050” frame. China’s pledge to be net zero by 2060 and India’s 2070 pledge illustrate this: it makes no sense for the south to attempt to reach net zero on the same timeline as the north. As long as wealthy countries push off meaningful climate action for decades (2050), it’s hard to expect the rest of the world to do anything different, particularly when energy and wealth are so urgently needed to adapt to the impacts of climate change those countries are already facing – and with the north continuing to refuse to provide financing and technology transfers at any meaningful scale.
There’s another complication with present-day emissions that the nation state frame obscures: emissions are strongly correlated with wealth both between states and within them. As the proportion of the world’s wealthy living in the south has increased, the corresponding emissions inequality has become more important. The wealthiest 10% globally were responsible for 52% of the emissions between 1990 and 2015, but that 10% is no longer fully captured by north-south inequality: today, the top 10% within China (as an example) emit 10x more than the bottom 50%, and it’s a pattern that’s becoming more and more common as inequality rises and spreads geographically.
In a bit of a coincidence, the wealthiest 10% also capture 52% of global income today.
I don’t want to overstate this: while the wealthy are increasingly spread throughout the world and the corresponding distribution of emissions is important to understand, the top 10% are still overwhelmingly found in the global north. Indeed, the World Inequality Report 2022 indicated that the annual income threshold to be included in the top 10% is €37,200 (p. 28), which likely includes the majority of readers of this newsletter.
The transboundary carbon inequality and the closely related inequality of cumulative emissions we read about in issue #42 make a straightforward case that the north should be funding both mitigation and adaptation in the south and that the north should be on a drastically accelerated decarbonization timeline.
But intra-national carbon inequality and its troubling upwards trend tells us something more fundamental: addressing the climate crisis requires addressing wealth inequality and conspicuous consumption. It’s why calls for a wealth tax aren’t just about (or aren’t at all about) funding public services and decarbonization: they’re about transforming power dynamics and eliminating a way of life that is incompatible with a livable future.
‘The way net zero target is being formulated is unfair’ (10 minutes)
Hindustan Times, October 2021
This interview with Indian climate expert Sunita Narain summarizes what she sees as the just approach to dealing with past and present emissions inequality (between nation states) in climate negotiations — particularly, at COP26. For the south, the issues with global climate negotiations are much clearer than they tend to be here in the north and southern politicians, diplomats, and media are much more willing to call out injustice and inaction. The coal debacle at COP26 illustrates this well: Western media widely reported that Alok Sharma “was on the brink of tears” in the final days of negotiation because the draft agreement changed from “phase out” coal to “phase down” coal. Reporting blamed India (and China) for this change. I’m not saying the right-wing Modi government is any kind of climate hero, but this framing is exactly what Narain warns about in this interview: it is an absolute outrage that northern countries continue to refuse to commit to phasing out fossil fuels of all kinds. How is the news story that India torpedoed the climate negotiations while the north continues to operate coal plants and expand oil and gas production? As Narain puts it, “The rich need to close all their coal plants and then start talking to [the] rest of the world.”
The rest of this issue focuses more on the relation between wealth inequality and carbon inequality, but it’s worth mentioning that I think the best way to expand our understanding of climate justice and the path towards it to read southern perspectives on climate (and on international climate negotiations).
Chartbook Newsletter #24 - Climate, carbon and class (15 minutes)
Adam Tooze, June 2021
In this piece, Adam Tooze makes the compelling case that inequality of emissions along wealth lines (as opposed to that defined by national borders) is an increasingly important part of the story of climate change. He surveys most of the literature on this topic, starting with a 2007 report by Greenpeace in India that found a sharp divergence of the emissions of the most affluent 10 million people in India from everyone else. In 2015, Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel followed up on this with a much more comprehensive global look at wealth and emissions both within and beyond national borders. This report also proposed a variety of ways to target carbon taxes at the world’s top emitters, including the floating the idea of a global tax on air travel. In 2020, Oxfam published another study of global income inequality and emissions, and as Tooze notes, “the really striking feature…is the huge surge in the emissions of the top 10 percent of the global income distribution and within that privileged group the surge in emissions by the top one percent.”
Each of these resources is worth reading on its own, and Chancel and Piketty have just published a new “World Inequality Report 2022” which includes extensive up-to-date work on carbon inequality. Tooze’s synthesis here is particularly valuable because it situates this inequality within the context of political economy by asking,
who makes infrastructure decisions? Who is it who frames policy options and shapes public opinion, whether in the national media or the social networks? Who is it who legislates? Who governs? Who is it who engineers technical solutions? Who leads businesses, small and large to buy into the trajectory of decarbonization?
And, of course:
it is, when it comes down to it, the same group highlighted by the consumption data - the folks in the top 10 percent of the income distribution - who drive the development of infrastructure.
Matt Huber wrote a great piece about this in May: the massive carbon footprints of the wealthy are a slap in the face. But the real problem is “that they own the means of production, and it’s extremely profitable for them to pollute.”
Carbon inequality in 2030: Per capita consumption emissions and the 1.5⁰C goal (20 minutes)
Tim Gore, Oxfam, November 2021.
This Oxfam briefing note is a follow-up to their 2020 study of carbon inequality that tries to overlay current policies and pledges on the emissions of various income distributions. In other words, it asks, if national pledges are met, how much will the emissions of each income group change, both globally and within states? The answer is both remarkable and totally unsurprising: “the emissions of the richest 1% are set to be 30 times the 1.5⁰C-compatible per capita level, while the emissions of the poorest 50% are set to remain well beneath it.” Those between the 50th and 90th percentile of global wealth will see their emissions drop (though not anywhere near the amount they need to) while the share of emissions caused by the richest 1% will continue to grow (to 16% in 2030). There are a lot of interesting pieces in here, but the message is fairly simple: current climate plans put the responsibility for emissions reductions on the global middle class while the wealthy continue along a more or less “business as usual” trajectory. Its absurdity is a useful illustration of the point Tooze makes above: if the ultra-rich are controlling climate policy, of course they’re going to shape it so that they are largely unaffected.
Private planes, mansions, and superyachts: What gives billionaires such a massive carbon footprint (5 minutes)
Richard Wilk and Beatriz Barros, Fast Company, February 2021.
Wilk and Barros published a study attempting to quantify the consumption emissions of some 20 well-known billionaires. Given that a few people in this class went to space this year, these numbers shouldn’t be too surprising, but they are really just outrageously high. Bill Gates? 7408 tons of CO2e a year. Roman Abramovich? 31,199 tons. Sheldon Adelson? 11,927. These numbers are eye-popping: remember, the global average footprint is around 5 tons. The bulk of these emissions come from yachts, air travel (and private jets), and homes, but the three billionaires I listed above are illustrative examples for why these emissions counts, while truly vile, vastly understate the negative impacts these people create. Roman Abramovich is a Russian oil baron. Sheldon Adelson (who passed away in January this year) was a huge Republican donor and avid Trump supporter. And Gates — well, there’s much more to say about him than I can fit here, but for now, just remember that Microsoft continues to profit handsomely from the oil and gas industry.
The levels of consumption of the ultra-rich are a big problem and their prominence allows them to set consumption norms globally, even amongst other classes. But what is likely the much bigger problem is what they’re doing with their capital and their power.
Like what you’re reading here?
Sign up now so you don’t miss the next issue and consider forwarding this email to a friend or colleague.