Mitigating climate change and reducing inequality are both critical goals for sustainable development. There is growing understanding that the increase in income resulting from economic growth is not sufﬁcient to reduce poverty and inequality if it is not inclusive and does not take careful account of the three key dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental. Due to differences in income level, local conditions, and lifestyles, great disparities in the average carbon footprints of households exist. The analysis on the differences in carbon footprints at the household level provides information for policymakers to understand the co-benefits of aforementioned goals.
We do so by estimating the carbon footprints of different income groups in China. Our recent paper “Economic development and converging household carbon footprints in China” published on Nature Sustainability, led by Dr. Zhifu Mi, aims at taking urgent action to combat climate change and reducing income inequality according to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Contribution to this article was made by co-authors from a global team with diversified backgrounds. Such cooperation promotes new findings and implications on the sustainable development of society.
Many studies have estimated the inequality of carbon emissions at national or sub-national levels, while studies comparing household-level carbon inequality are still limited. On the other hand, China aims to consider social equality in its climate change actions by allocating more responsibilities on climate change mitigation to its wealthier regions. However, climate change researchers have rarely considered equality at the household level in China, which is in great need to be explored and analysed. Therefore, we estimated household carbon footprints for 12 income groups (5 rural and 7 urban) in 30 Chinese provinces in 2007 and 2012. Subsequently, carbon footprint Gini coefficients were calculated to measure carbon inequality for households across provinces.
The results show that the top 5% of income earners were responsible for 17% of the national household carbon footprints in 2012, while the bottom half of income earners caused only 25%. Average per capita carbon footprint in most poor provinces increased and those in some wealthy provinces declined between 2007 and 2012. Carbon inequality declined with economic growth in China across space and time in two ways. First, carbon footprints were more similar in the wealthier coastal regions than in the poorer inland regions. Second, China’s national carbon footprint Gini coefficients declined from 0.44 in 2007 to 0.37 in 2012. We argue that economic growth not only increases income levels but also contributes to an overall reduction in carbon inequality in China.
The conclusions provide policy implications to understand the interactions and trade-offs between measures targeting inequality alleviation and climate change mitigation, which are both critical under the UN SDGs. By assessing the costs and benefits of climate change adaptation and exploring the appropriate path to reduce inequality, we show that climate change mitigation and poverty alleviation can achieve mutual benefits.