December 8, 2023

Restaurants, pets and foreign holidays are among the reasons why the UK’s most well-off people rack up carbon footprints far greater than those on low incomes, according to data shared with the Guardian.

The biggest carbon divide is in aviation, with the richest 10% in the UK – the 6.7 million people paid more than £59,000 a year – causing more than six times more climate-heating emissions from flights than the poorest 10%. Spending on electrical items, homeware and furniture also contributes to the outsize impact of the wealthy, who splash out four times more on these goods.

There is also a generational divide, the data shows, with baby boomers having the largest and growing carbon footprints, significantly higher than generation X and millennials. The biggest geographical divide is between London and the rest of the UK, with those in the capital having substantially lower footprints due to much better public transport.

Chart showing how many times greater the emissions of the richest 10% are than the poorest 10% in aviation, public transport, restaurants, home goods, cars, pets and hobbies, food and drink, and gas and electricity

Recognising inequalities in carbon emissions is essential to making climate action fair and effective, experts say. The rich have the most emissions to cut and have the means to do so, while the poor may rebel against policies that make already stretched lives harder.

“There’s a massive range in people’s footprints,” said Dr Anne Owen, a carbon footprint expert at the University of Leeds. “For aviation, it’s massive. The richest in society are flying many, many times more than the poorest. Also, restaurants, hotels – luxury consumption – and other services, which could be anything from theatre to financial services.”

Owen said the government’s levies on home energy bills to raise money for net zero policies showed the problem of ignoring the great carbon divide: “You could not pick a worse product to place a carbon tax or levy on.”

Owen’s research shows that the lowest-income households spend 10% of their income on heating and powering their homes, while the highest spend less than 1.5%. So the increase in prices hits the poor disproportionately, despite their much lower carbon footprints.

“Instead, the levies could be put on air travel – then you would end up getting the richest in society paying far more,” she said. “Or you could just put it on income tax, which is already designed to work with people’s levels of income.” The latter option would cut energy bills for 65% of households.

“Switching to electric cars is also something that the wealthier end of society can do,” she said. “It doesn’t change their lifestyle much but it will reduce their carbon footprint by huge amounts. So, obviously, the government pushing back the date [for the end of sales of new combustion-engine cars] is ridiculous.”

Owen’s findings are based on analysis of surveys conducted by the Office for National Statistics. They show that the richest 10% have heavy travel footprints. As well as many more flights, they take far more trains and their car use causes three times more emissions than that of the poorest 10%.

Generations chart

The climate impact of restaurant and hotel visits is more than four times higher for the richest 10%, while three times more carbon is emitted through their pet animals and hobbies. Previous studies have suggested pets fed meaty diets can have carbon footprints as large as their owners. The difference in emissions from home energy and food is less stark, at about 50% higher for the rich.

Owen’s analysis of the carbon footprints of different generations over the last two decades shows baby boomers having the biggest impact. “It’s when people retire and start flying a lot. Children also leave the nest, so their home energy footprint gets larger because it’s shared out between fewer people, and they are still living in large houses,” she said. “As baby boomers die out, footprints could go down.”

Millennials have increased their footprints relative to the overall UK average since 2000 as they become homeowners and start families. Their climate impact still remains well below that of baby boomers, Owen said. “That is possibly because they have not become as wealthy as the previous generations.”

The footprints of generation X and the older silent generation have not changed over the last 20 years, most likely because they are at settled life stages, with growing families or in later retirement respectively.

Regionally, London is an outlier, with a 15% lower per capita footprint than the rest of the country. “London has incredibly high public transport,” Owen said. “So even in the richest areas of the city, footprints come out as being relatively small because of less reliance on cars.”

She said the introduction of the Ulez scheme in 2019, which charges polluting cars entering the city centre, led to a particular drop in private car emissions.

Ruth Townend, a research fellow at the Chatham House thinktank in the UK, said: “A passive approach [by government] to sustainable lifestyle change unfairly disadvantages the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

“The increasing price of fossil fuels, petrol and heating for homes is unfairly borne by poor households. They’re not using a great deal of energy anyway, and not wasting much because they can’t afford to, so there’s not much wiggle room for them to reduce their carbon emissions. Whereas people who are well off can afford to pay the premium and continue to use those fuels as before.

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