From Über-emitters to Street sleepers: Individualising responsibility for climate change

In 2010 as part of my thesis I recorded many discussions on climate change. The discussions involved 64 participants who took part in 11 focus groups; 19 of them also sat for interviews. The total transcribed recordings came to approximately 380,000 words, which is an enormous amount, especially considering Galway University guidelines recommend a maximum of 80,000 words for a PhD thesis. What struck me about those conversations is that during the vast amount of time talking about climate change the role of inequality barely featured. This was despite recruiting very diverse groups (e.g. climate change activists, organic growers, former Steiner students, business persons, farmers). In four groups class emissions appeared indirectly such as in a derogatory comment about a guy driving a big car. These comments were never spontaneous but instead they arrived after I introduced leading cues. Some climate change activists I interviewed produced a broadened global class framing of climate change inequalities using a North-South subtext: the narrative of the developed North having a historically advantageous and exploitative relationship to the global South. For example pseudonymous Sarah recalled meeting campaigners from the developing world who drew her attention to how she benefits “every day from the privilege of [her] carbon intensive society” through “nice clothes” and “warm houses”. Still no references appeared in that focus group, or the accompanying life histories, of the social imbalance in domestic emissions. Broadening class emissions to global dimensions is a narrative that is in danger of mystifying, through this broader frame, the specifics of higher emitters from a country’s upper and middle classes.

For me the relegation of the role of these class emissions to the unsaid points to its diminished salience among my participants. Apologies for not producing a nice sciency content analysis of the media however I have been a voracious reader of English language climate change news over the years and rarely do I find the unequal responsibility for domestic greenhouse gas emissions being addressed. This is not to simplistically equate A with B – media reporting with the words of my respondents – as doubtless other structural factors are also at play such as the depolitization of civil society, the rise of economism, the weakening of unions, the tread softly “appeasement” approach of prominent environmentalist groups etc. However evidence from the UK suggests a clear and important class imbalance exists which is worthy of a place in public climate change debate.

An analysis of a 2005 to 2006 survey based on 6,164 UK households examined the total embodied emissions pertaining to household consumption. The direct emissions (from heating fuel or driving a car etc.) – which are normally all that are used in calculating per capita emissions – were included with indirect emissions through the consumption of food, consumer goods and services. Firstly, the authors found that indirect emissions amounted to four fifths of the household emissions, highlighting the enormous importance of including such emissions in studies. Secondly, it was established that with each increase of £5000 in annual equivalised income,[1] direct greenhouse gas emissions rose by 6.0% and indirect emissions by 6.9%. The study also highlighted the impact of higher carbon prices on the lowest income sectors as the lowest 10% emitted four times the emission rate per income as the highest 10%. This stresses the heightened nature of expenditure inequality over income inequality, an important factor for policy-makers and campaigners to consider. Another examination of the same survey found that the richest 10% had emissions from car usage that were four times that of the bottom 10%. Most of the difference of two and a half times the climate emissions they found across the income range could be attributed to the flying and driving practices of the wealthy.

While the original data source may be old it still highlights the relevance of inequality to the effectiveness of any carbon lowering policy. The role of inequality is hardly going to be confined to some temporal glitch back in 2005 and 2006 nor is it likely to be solely a UK phenomenon, after all Foster (2013) points to how the carbon footprint of the US economy’s top quintile has been estimated as being over triple that of the bottom. This really shouldn’t be too surprising when one thinks of jet-setting elites,[2] all year round outdoor heated swimming pools, or the profligate personal machinery of the very rich such as superyachts that can consume 750, 850 or even as much as 3400 litres of fuel per hour. All this contrasts starkly with figures that estimate one sixth of world’s population producing no significant emissions and street sleepers in India who provide net savings on greenhouse gases through their part in recycling waste.

A growing abundance of campaigns and policies around the world appeal to the public to change their energy-related behaviours as though they are equal individuals and households. Effectively this classes the carbon footprint of a country’s über-emitters – potentially an upper echelon containing holders of private jets; superyachts and colossal mansions – as effectively the same as persons living in the small semi-detached houses of suburbia. Through a focus on social inequalities, analyses of greenhouse gas emissions can drastically deviate from the individualising and obfuscating per capita averages. Policies, news articles, academic studies that fail to address the role of emission inequalities in a society contribute to an individualisation of the decarbonisation debate by concealing a hugely significant part of the public and climate change relationship.


[1] Equivalised income is a measure of household income, which is weighted to account for differences in household size and age composition.

[2] Cutting back on flying has been described as an effective way to lower personal carbon emissions and yet in the UK the overwhelming majority of flights have been taken by people in the higher economic bracket.




Foster J B (2013) James Hansen and the Climate-Change Exit Strategy. Monthly Review, 9.


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