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Carbon inequality: EU emissions cuts only achieved among poorer Europeans

EU emissions reductions since 1990 resulted from a fall in the emissions of lower- and middle-income Europeans, while the emissions of the richest 10 per cent of Europeans grew, the international confederation of NGOs Oxfam revealed in a new analysis.  

According to the report, Confronting Carbon Inequality in the European Union, tackling carbon inequality is key to delivering the new EU 2030 climate target and to a fast, fair and sustainable economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The European Council meeting on 10 and 11 December will decide the ambition of the EU’s 2030 greenhouse gas emission reduction target. Following China’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and the election of a new US administration that is committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement, a strengthened EU target could prove a tipping point in accelerating international climate action.

However, it will only be possible to agree and to achieve deeper reductions by 2030, if equity and fairness are put at the heart of the transition to a new European economy, reads Oxfam’s report.

The analysis, based on research conducted with the Stockholm Environment Institute, showed that the richest 10 per cent of EU citizens were responsible for more than a quarter (27 per cent) of EU emissions, the same amount as the poorest half of the EU population combined. By contrast, the richest Europeans increased their emissions by 3 per cent and the richest 1 per cent saw an increase of 5 per cent. To stay on track for global heating of no more than 1.5 degrees, the carbon footprint of the richest 10 per cent of Europeans must be ten times smaller by 2030 and that of the richest 1 per cent 30 times less than now. By contrast, the footprint of the poorest 50 per cent must be halved. 

“EU carbon reductions have been delivered by poorer Europeans while the richest have had a free ride,” said Tim Gore, Oxfam’s head of climate policy and report co-author. “But now everyone must pull their weight to achieve the deeper emission cuts needed over the next decade. Carbon inequality could derail Europe’s climate targets unless EU leaders take a joined-up approach to both cut emissions and tackle inequality. The yellow vest protests in France show how quickly climate policies can unravel if they are not built on principles of fairness and justice.”

The report reveals stark carbon inequality within, as well as between, EU member states. The richest 10 per cent of citizens in Germany, Italy, France and Spain (approximately 25,8 million people) are collectively responsible for the same amount of emissions as the entire population of 16 EU member states combined (approximately 84,8 million people). However, rocketing inequality and a reliance on coal means the richest 10 per cent of citizens in Poland (approximately 3,8 million people) – a relatively poorer country – are responsible for more emissions than the entire population of countries like Hungary (approximately 9,9 million people).

In particular, air travel and car journeys are responsible for the largest share − around 30-40 per cent − of the carbon footprint of the highest emitting Europeans. Home heating is the biggest contributor to the footprints of lower-income groups. Transport emissions have increased significantly in all but two EU Member States since 1990 and are responsible for around a quarter of all EU emissions. This is in part because of the growth in demand for polluting luxury vehicles such as SUVs which account for a third of new cars sold in the EU today.

Therefore, Oxfam is calling for the EU to use the European Green Deal legislative package to fight inequality, cut emissions and boost the economic recovery from COVID-19.

“The EU Green Deal can target the emissions of the richest while directly benefiting lower-income Europeans,” added Mr Gore. “It’s time to ban SUVs, tax aviation fuel, and invest in housing renovation and public transport to end fuel poverty, create millions of decent jobs, and cleaner air for all. An ambitious 2030 climate target coupled with a fair European Green Deal will help Europe bounce back from the COVID-19 crisis with more sustainable and resilient economies that work for everyone.”

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