A cap on ‘luxury’ emissions could make a clean energy transition fairer

Hypothetical cutbacks would make plenty of room to lift vulnerable populations out of energy poverty, according to a new study.
Limousine and private jet on landing strip.

A new study confirms the wealthiest must do their part to help stave off climate collapse. Deposit Photos

There are a myriad of things everyday consumers can do to reduce their carbon footprints: basic water conservation, recycling, and transitioning to electric vehicles. While it’s true that everyone can benefit from striving to live their greenest lives, a new study reaffirms a less popularized fact—the world’s wealthiest are disproportionately responsible for producing dangerous carbon emissions.

According to a new study, reducing “luxury” demands from the top 20 percent of Europeans using the most energy would save seven times the amount of emissions generated from meeting energy needs for the continent’s bottom 20 percent. In doing so, the hypothetical cutbacks would more than make up for the necessary emissions that stem from lifting the most vulnerable out of what some call energy poverty.

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As detailed in a paper published on Monday in Nature Energy, researchers working together from the Universities of Leeds and Manchester modeled narrowing European households’ energy uses across an array of instances, including personal transportation, home insulation, and holiday travel. To do so, researchers created a fictional country composed of 100 citizens drawn from 27 European countries—all of the EU minus Austria, alongside the UK. In this scenario, the first citizen uses the least energy, with each subsequent resident using more. Researchers then lowered the demands of residents 81-to-100 down to the level of the 80th citizen, while simultaneously raising the energy demand of residents 1-19 to the level of resident 20.

The team determined that such luxury usage caps cut household energy emissions by over 11 percent, alongside transportation emissions by nearly 17 percent. Meanwhile, meeting needs for impoverished Europeans only raised emissions by barely 1 percent for home energy, and just under 1 percent for transportation costs.

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In an interview with The Guardian on Monday, University of Leeds professor of sustainable welfare and study lead author Milena Buchs explained, “We have to start tackling luxury energy use to stay within an equitable carbon budget for the globe, but also to actually have the energy resources to enable people in fuel poverty to slightly increase their energy use and meet their needs.”

Such energy use reductions are incredibly feasible for middle- and upper-class residents, as they frequently have more agency and financial leeway to make the necessary adjustments with little-to-no impact on their quality of living. While technological innovations must still lead the way to a sustainable, healthy future for the planet, reducing the wealthiest individuals’ footprint is also a major component in ensuring critical climate goals are met.