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WIREs Clim Change
Impact Factor: 5.124

Less global inequality can improve climate outcomes

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Two of the biggest global challenges we face today are mitigating climate change and economic inequality. Some research suggests these goals are in conflict, based largely on the observation that a dollar spent at higher income levels is less carbon intensive than at lower income levels. We put this concern to rest. We quantify this effect in its most extreme manifestation, both within countries and between countries. We use a wide range of income elasticities of emissions (0.7–1.0) and scenarios from the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSP) with the highest (SSP4) and lowest (SSP5) between‐country inequality. Within countries, even with assumptions of low elasticities (0.7) and aggressive inequality reduction (Gini coefficient of 0.55 to 0.30), emissions would realistically increase by less than 8%, which would likely occur over several decades. Income convergence between countries may reduce the emissions intensity of global income growth, because the energy intensity reductions from income growth in emerging economies, such as India and China, offsets the energy increasing effect of higher growth in developing countries. Given these findings, it seems a distraction for future research to dwell on this narrow framing when there are deeper under‐explored linkages and synergies between reducing income inequality and climate change, such as the effect of reducing inequality on social norms, consumption and on political mobilization around climate policy.

This article is categorized under:

  • Climate and Development > Sustainability and Human Well‐Being
Effect of a hypothetical decrease in income inequality (from Gini 0.55 to 0.30) on total energy in a country due to decreasing emissions intensity (per dollar) with increasing income (elasticity of 0.7). (a) The two income distributions (b) Corresponding cumulative income; (c) Cumulative energy, showing an 8.4% increase with a lower Gini
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Energy intensity by country for the base year 2013. The black straight line is the population‐weighted trend line, showing an average between‐country income elasticity of 0.9
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GDP vs. energy increase between 2013 and 2050 in a world with more equity (SSP5) and more inequality (SSP4). (a) Assuming no decoupling (between energy and income) over time; (b) with decoupling, using a power law to relate Income to Energy (E = f(Iα)). The incremental length for each country represents how much she contributes to the increase in GDP and energy between 2013 and 2050. The number at the end of each line represents the average energy intensity of the world economy by 2050
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