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Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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Carbon emissions are far from equal. Rich people seem to emit more than poor people, and rich countries more than poor ones. Just how bad are global carbon inequalities?

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We often hear organisations in New Zealand asking for climate justice. The Fridays for Future movement started by Greta Thunberg and continued in New Zealand by some of our young people is but one example of a climate justice movement. One of the things that we can do to measure climate justice is to by looking at the different emissions of different sectors of the population.

New Zealand’s Government-supported climate action website, GenLess.govt.nz, seems to have misunderstood the whole idea of carbon emissions. In a colourful and celebratory picture, they declare that New Zealand has the fourth highest carbon emissions per capita in the OECD! That actually means, the fourth worst country among all the other rich countries!

Carbon emissions celebrated by NZ ministry
GenLess celebrating New Zealand's dismal ranking.

To help any wary readers of this Government site out, and for those of you interested in learning more about carbon emissions, here is an explanation of carbon emissions and how they can be compared to show the level of inequality in countries around the world.

How do we calculate carbon emissions per capita (per person)? This is done by measuring the total emissions of a particular country, including all greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide…), and determining the share of these emissions for each person in the country. Because some citizens are wealthier than others, they tend to emit a lot more than people who are less wealthy. This is for many reasons: sometimes these people believe they need to travel a lot and so have large transport emissions; other times they buy expensive and high-polluting items such as private jets; and most have high-consumption lifestyles which require large amounts of resources in order to sustain.

We make these measurements by figuring out the amount of all the greenhouse gases that we produce, and converting these into a carbon dioxide equivalent, CO2e. We have this equivalent because each gas warms the planet differently – methane for example is much stronger than carbon dioxide, meaning it warms the planet faster with the same amount of gas. (See this article from MIT to read more about this). This number is then expressed in tonnes, which is the mass of gases that we are producing over a given time frame.

The inequality aspect of this measure of carbon emissions is a way of determining the difference between those who are more wealthy, and therefore emit a lot, and those who are less wealthy, and therefore emit much less. The greater the inequality, the greater the difference between wealthy and less-wealthy populations.

Carbon Emissions in New Zealand

In New Zealand, things are quite bad. We have a very unequal distribution of carbon emissions. On average each New Zealander emits 15.18 tonnes of CO2e per year. To put that into perspective, if we are to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming, we can each emit 1.1 tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year. To stay within 2 degrees of warming, we can each emit 3.4 tonnes per year. Our annual emissions are therefore, on average, 5 times what they should be if we are to limit the impact of global warming on our planet. Why do we need to limit the warming of the planet? See the article here (coming soon).

In fact, the bottom 50% of income earners, so half of New Zealand’s population, only emit 8.2 tonnes of CO2e per year. However, the wealthiest 10% of New Zealanders emit 45.89 tonnes per year, and the top 1% emit a staggering 139.1 tonnes per year. This top 1% of the population use up the carbon budget of nearly 41 people, each year.

Is there something wrong with carbon inequality?

Imagine that we were on a ship. On this voyage we have enough food to sustain everyone on the ship for the whole trip, plus a little bit more. But, one of these people decides that he’s going to eat much more than his allocated share – enough for 41 people. He starts eating, and day by day the food supply decreases for the whole crew abord the ship.

Is there a problem here? There’s no contract saying that this person can only consume his portion of the food each day. He’s free to eat as much as he wants. But the more he eats, the more other people will starve.

Some people will respond to this by saying that on this ship, it’s a matter of survival of the fittest. This person is acting in his interests to eat as much as he can. After all, he’s allowed to, and if he loves food, then why should we stop him?

Others will respond that in fact this person’s actions are wrong. They are eating more than their fair share of food, and as a result, other people will go hungry in the future. By being on the boat, there is an implicit understanding between the people that they will each share the resources evenly, so that everyone will be nourished and healthy at the end of the voyage.

The problem comes when we ask, what shall we do with this person? Some will say – do nothing! There isn’t a problem, and we can sort out the other (malnourished) people later on. Others will say we should cut off the food supply of this person, because they have already consumed more than their own share for the whole trip. Others will argue for something in the middle.

Carbon emissions inequality is the same. For us to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming, each person is given a budget of 1.1 tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year. To stay within 2 degrees of warming, we can each emit 3.4 tonnes per year. Most of us in developed countries like New Zealand will be over these limits. Certain people however have decided that they are going to emit an enormous amount more than their fair share. Much, much more.

Here we have one way of looking at climate justice. How do we make sure that each person has a similar degree of emissions, and how do we make sure that the ones who are emitting the most are the ones who bear the greatest consequences? Because, as we have seen, and will continue to see, it is always the least wealthy and most precarious people who bear the brunt of the effects of climate change.

Cruise ship in the sea
If we're on a boat with no further resources, what do we do if someone uses more than their fair share? Photo: Adam Gonzales

What about the rest of the world?

In 2022, the World Inequality Database released the World Inequality Report 2022. This report contains a section on carbon inequality across the world.

On average, each person on planet Earth emits 6.6 tonnes of CO2e per year. That’s less than half the average New Zealander.

The graph from the report below shows us the carbon inequality across the planet. The least wealthy 50% of the world’s population – some 4 billion people – only emit 1.6 tonnes each per year. They’re within the limit for the Earth’s warming to be kept below 2 degrees. The middle 40% are emitting 6.6 tonnes per year. The top 1% however are emitting 110 tonnes of CO2e per year. That’s the same as 68 people in the bottom 50% of the population.

Graph showing the global carbon inequalities
Global Carbon Inequality by group. Graph: World Inequality Report 2022

How does this compare throughout the world, when we look at different geographic regions?

Graph showing the emissions between income brackets internationally
Per Capita Carbon Inequality by group and region. Graph: World Inequality Report 2022

The closer the difference between the three bars, blue, green, and red, the more equal a particular region is when we talk about carbon inequality. When there is a massive difference between the bars, these regions are very unequal.

What we see here is that Europe is the most equal among the regions shown here, with the top 10% emitting only 6 times more than the bottom 50%. In most other regions, however, the top 10% emit around 10 times more CO2e than the bottom 50%, with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa, where the top 10% emit 14 times more. Their top 10% only emit 7.3 tonnes each, however, compared with the top 10% of North Americans who emit 10 times that amount – 73 tonnes per year. Similarly, the poorest North Americans, on average, emit more than the richest people in Sub-Saharan Africa, and almost the same amount as the richest in South and South-East Asia.

Remember that in New Zealand, the top 10% emit 45.89 tonnes of CO2e per year, just over half that of a North American in the same wealth category.  

As we can see, the world is quite an unequal place when it comes to carbon emissions. When we think about the individual carbon budgets described above, some people have a lot more effort to put in than others, if we are to meet these goals.

Critiques of emissions policy and carbon calculations

This brings up the question of scale and impact in climate change policy. For example, limiting the flights that are made by private jet, or banning these flights entirely, will impact the carbon emissions of the wealthiest 10% of the population, and have almost no impact on the rest of the population – who, for a large part, have never even been in an aeroplane.

Actions that limit the emissions of the wealthiest of our populations often have a large impact on total emissions. Policies that limit the emissions of the least wealthy people, however, often have very little impact on total emissions. We should keep this in mind when considering carbon emission-related policies.

It’s also important to keep in mind that calculating true carbon emissions and carbon dioxide equivalents is almost impossible. On large scales, we can estimate a lot of things, but many small pieces of the equation are often left out. In order to calculate the emissions relating to the four carrots you bought at the supermarket last week, the quantities emitted are so tiny they often become simply ‘0’ in the overall calculation. This means that the emissions of your consumption are dramatically lower than they would be, had we taken absolutely everything into account (which is very, very complicated and difficult to properly measure).

Another problem with carbon calculations is what we include. Often New Zealanders’ emissions are referred to as being around 6 tonnes per person, per year. This is just carbon dioxide, and doesn’t take into account other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. You can see the difference on the Our World in Data page. The website FutureFit.nz uses an average total value of 7.7 tonnes per year, which is based on a calculation done in a research paper in released in 2014, which used data from 2007.

The figure used here, 15.18 tonnes per New Zealander, per year, includes these other greenhouse gases. Therefore, the emissions related to producing dairy and meat for export is included in the average emissions total of each and every New Zealander, because this is a collective emission due to our country’s production choices. Future Fit, for example, don’t use this higher figure, because it would involve emissions that don’t directly relate to your own choices. These collective emissions are almost impossible to reduce or remove without large scale change.

We should also remember that the debate on carbon emissions is only one part of the much larger ecological problem. We’re also acidifying the seas, destroying natural resources, losing biodiversity through more animals becoming extinct, degrading the quality of our water and soil, and more. Air pollution is part of the changes in weather and temperature that we are seeing. However, managing only our carbon emissions is insufficient to deal with the ecological problems that we are facing.

From a more methodological perspective, carbon emissions and carbon accounting can be a good thing, as a statistic. This measurement can bring our attention to inequalities, give us a rough guide of the impact of our production and consumption relative to other countries, and help us to see if we are going in the right direction with the actions we take. The numbers are also a good tool to get people motivated to reduce their score – and if through small changes, people are able to see their carbon emissions decreasing, they’re more likely to continue with these behaviours in the long term.

However, at the core of the directive to measure carbon emissions is the idea that nature and the environment are manageable resources, which can only take a certain amount of greenhouse gases before the balance is lost and life becomes threatened. This isn’t the case – for one, the environment cannot be managed and is not a quantifiable resource. Second, there is no limit beyond which the planet will be out of equilibrium. Nature doesn’t have equilibriums; rather, these are tools that ecologists use to understand the way that nature works. For more on these topics see this article (coming soon).

Looking for more?

Are you interested in knowing where you sit in terms of global wealth and income? The World Inequality Database have a handy calculator which can tell you both where you sit in New Zealand, as well as how you compare to other countries, and the rest of the world.

If you’re looking to get a rough idea of how your choices impact your total carbon emissions, you can calculate your carbon footprint at FutureFit.nz, and see how this relates to others in New Zealand, as well as what areas of your consumption are the biggest contributors to your score.

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It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

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