Meeting climate targets requires emissions reductions. If we consider the carbon footprint of individuals, the current global per capita value of 3.2 tCO2 exceeds the calculated 1.6–2.8 tCO2 required to limit warming to 1.5–2 °C. Individuals in high-income countries tend to have the highest average carbon footprint. Analysis recently published in Nature Sustainability provides a detailed breakdown of country and expenditure per capita emissions1. Of the 116 countries studied, Luxembourg had the highest average carbon footprint, at over 30 tCO2 per person. However, when the top 10% of the population was considered, this jumped to 76.9 tCO2. Wealth and associated spending tend to result in higher emissions.

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The richest 1% globally emit more than twice that of the 50% poorest global population, 3.1 billion people; the average per capita footprint is 75 times higher and the top 1% account for ~15% of all emissions. For the period 1990–2015, the emissions of the top 1% grew at three times the rate of the bottom 50%2. Just as Ilona Otto and colleagues called for in their 2019 Comment article3, there needs to be a shift in focus to the super-rich — action from this group of individuals could have a substantial impact on emissions reductions.

However, there is a huge contrast between the high emissions of the wealthy and those in poorer countries. Climate impacts disproportionately affect the poor, yet the carbon footprint of those in poverty is typically below 1 tCO2. Benedikt Bruckner and colleagues report1 that six countries have per capita carbon footprints below 0.2 tCO2 — Madagascar, Malawi, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Furthermore, their findings highlight that lifting over 1 billion people out of poverty, as set out in Sustainable Development Goal 1, can be achieved within climate targets; such actions would increase emissions only by ~2%. The inequality of emissions is highlighted, as the authors note that actions to lift people out of poverty could more than double emissions in low- and lower-middle-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa — this region currently has average carbon footprints of 0.6 tCO2.

Geographically there are substantial differences in emissions, but there can also be large differences within countries. In an Article in this issue of Nature Climate Change, Kuishuang Feng and co-authors discuss how an ageing society is leading to the senior group having a larger share of carbon emissions. Analysing household expenditure data alongside an input–output model by age group across 32 developed economies (29 European Union countries, Australia, Japan and the USA) shows that those 60 years and older have the most carbon-intensive lifestyles on average. Small households living in large residences is one contributing factor, as is expenditure per capita, with greater accumulated wealth. As societies age, this cohort will increase in size with potential further implications for emissions. In an accompanying News & Views article, Juudit Ottelin highlights that these results apply to the current senior age group but future generations may behave differently. A desire to leave the world in a fit state for their descendants may influence behaviour.

There are generational differences in climate understanding and action, and future emissions cannot continue along the same path if climate targets are to be achieved. Recent analysis by the International Energy Agency found that the next generation (Generation Alpha, those born after 2012 and into the 2020s) will need to limit their emissions to ten times lower than those of the baby boomers (those born 1950–1964) to achieve net zero by 20504. In countries with historically higher emissions this actually needs to be ~15 times lower. Current emissions, individual behaviours and the strict action required all need to be taken into account in mitigation planning and policy.

Climate action and mitigation needs to be achieved alongside actions to improve lives. Reducing emissions from the highest emitters is essential, as is overall emissions cuts wherever possible but not at the expense of those at the other end of the wealth spectrum — any mitigation policies need to ensure that they can have better lives and be lifted out of poverty.