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UK Study Reveals Huge Emissions Gap Between Top 1% and Poorest

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Lifestyles of the “polluting elite” bear little resemblance to those of the rest.

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The top 1 percent of earners in the UK are responsible for the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions in a single year as the bottom 10 percent emit over more than two decades, new data has shown.

The findings highlight the enormous gaps between what have been termed “the polluting elite,” whose high-carbon lifestyles fuel the climate crisis, and the majority of people, even in developed countries, whose carbon footprints are far smaller.

It would take 26 years for a low earner to produce as much carbon dioxide as the richest do in a year, according to Autonomy’s analysis of income and greenhouse gas data from 1998 to 2018, which found that people earning £170,000 or more in 2018 in the UK were responsible for greenhouse gas emissions far greater than the 30 percent of people earning £21,500 or less in the same year.

The period covered by the dataset ends in 2018, before the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, which disrupted high-carbon activities such as flying.

Autonomy also found that if the UK had started taxing carbon emissions from just the top 1 percent of income groups two decades ago, the effort could have raised about £126bn by now, which could have gone towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions in an equitable way, for instance through home insulation for poorer households.

Peter Newell, professor of international relations at the University of Sussex, who was not involved in the Autonomy report but has worked extensively on the “polluting elite”, told the Guardian the massive gap should be addressed.

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