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To Stave Off Climate Change, the World’s Wealthiest Must Cut Carbon Emissions by 97%: UN Report

The combined emissions of the richest 1 percent account for more than twice the poorest 50 percent.

private aviation covid Chris Leipelt/Unsplash

Climate change often seems like an insurmountable problem, but the solution is, and always has been, relatively simple: humans need to reduce carbon emissions. Now, a new report by the United Nations is shedding light on who needs to step up, and the richest 1 percent are at the top of the list.

The Emissions Gap Report 2020, which was published by the UN earlier this month, provides a snapshot of projected greenhouse emissions in 2030, and the levels needed to avoid a worst-case scenario. The report indicates that the difference between the two—also known as the “emissions gap”—is bigger than ever.

In fact, even with the brief dip in emissions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the UN says the world is heading for a temperature rise in excess of 3 degrees Celsius this century. This is far beyond the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees.

According to the report, the world’s wealthiest people are primarily responsible for the gap. The top 1 percent of income earners, a group that comprises roughly 70 million people, accounts for 15 percent of the world’s carbon pollution. By comparison, the bottom 50 percent, roughly 3.5 billion people, is responsible for 50 percent of emissions.

UN Emissions Gap Report 2020

Total carbon emissions per income group.  UN Emissions Gap Report 2020

To stave off climate change, the UN says the world’s wealthiest need to cut their carbon footprint by 97 percent.

“The richest 1 percent would need to reduce their current emissions by at least a factor of 30, while per capita emissions of the poorest 50 percent could increase by around three times their current levels on average,” the report notes.

Air travel, which the UN says remains “the preserve of high-income earners,” is one of the biggest culprits. In fact, if it were considered a country, it would be the eighth-largest carbon polluter in the world. What’s more, a study last month in the journal Global Environmental Change found that half of all emissions from commercial flights come from 1 percent of the world’s population, and emissions from private air travel can amount to 7,500 tons of CO2 per year. As such, curtailing flights could make a drastic difference.

“At some point, air travel is the most CO2-intensive activity that we do,” Justin Caron, an environmental economist and professor at the University of Montreal’s business school, told CBS News. “Any dent into that could have a long-lasting positive effect.”

The UN outlines other lifestyle changes, like switching to plant-based diets and commuting via public transport or bikes, that could also play a part in reducing emissions.

Of course, it all comes down to a willingness to change. The report ends by noting that “ultimately, the accomplishment of low-carbon lifestyles will require deep-rooted changes to socioeconomic systems and cultural conventions.” And all that needs to happen by 2030.

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