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The Rich Are to Blame for the Climate Crisis, International Study Finds

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The authors of the study say the numbers show a need for policies that will curtail excess energy use, such as flying. guvendemir / E+ / Getty Images

A new international study has pinpointed an enormous chasm in the amount of resources the rich use versus the poor — both within their own countries and compared to an international population, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Energy.


The researchers found that the wealthiest tenth of people use up about 20 times more overall energy than the bottom ten percent, no matter where they are, according to the BBC. The greatest part of the disparity is in transportation, where the wealthiest tenth consume 187 times more fuel than the poorest ten percent.

The researchers from the University of Leeds parsed data from the World Bank and the European Union to calculate the energy consumption of residents in 86 different countries, both highly industrialized and developing countries, according to the study. The researchers also looked at what energy-intensive goods and services different income groups use and how the different income groups spend their money.

The results showed a huge disparity in energy use as income climbs. The study found that as income climbs, people spend more of their money on energy-intensive goods, such as vacations or new cars or second homes that require heating and cooling — all of which leads to increased inequality in energy use, according to the study.

"There needs to be serious consideration to how to change the vastly unequal distribution of global energy consumption to cope with the dilemma of providing a decent life for everyone while, protecting climate and ecosystems," Julia Steinberger, a professor at the University Of Leeds and author on the paper, said in a University of Leeds statement.

The data showed that the top ten percent not only used 187 times the energy for transportation as the bottom ten percent, but the top ten percent actually used more than half the energy used for transportation. Most of that energy use came from fossil fuels, according to the University of Leeds.

When it came to energy use for cooking and heating, the disparity was not as great, but the wealthiest ten percent did use roughly one-third of the energy. That most likely came from the size of their home, according to the BBC.

"This study tells relatively wealthy people like us what we don't want to hear," Kevin Anderson, a professor from the Tyndall Centre in Manchester, England who was not involved in the study, said to the BBC. "The climate issue is framed by us high emitters – the politicians, business people, journalists, academics. When we say there's no appetite for higher taxes on flying, we mean we don't want to fly less. The same is true about our cars and the size our homes. We have convinced ourselves that our lives are normal, yet the numbers tell a very different story."

The authors of the study say the numbers show a need for policies that will curtail excess energy use. It shows a need for improved public transportation, higher taxes on bigger vehicles, and frequent flyer penalties for people who take the most vacations, according to the BBC.

While the world often wags a finger at China and India for their dependence on coal energy and their outsized contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, the average citizen uses far less energy than most Europeans. The study found that only 2 percent of Chinese citizens and 0.02 percent of Indian citizens are in the top 5 percent of energy consumers.

That is a stark contrast from the UK where 20 percent of the public is in the top 5 percent. Germany has 40 percent of its citizens in the top 5 percent, while every single person in Luxembourg is in the top five percent, according to the study.

The research shows that the rich will have to change their behavior and their consumption habits for countries to wean themselves from fossil fuels and move to a zero-carbon economy.

"Growth and increased consumption continue to be core goals of today's politics and economics," Anne Owen, an author on the paper and a professor in the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, said in a statement. "The transition to zero carbon energy will be made easier by reduction in demand, which means that top consumers will play an important role in lowering their excess energy consumption."

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