The identities of the world’s primary carbon culprits seem obvious. Wealthy nations such as the United States and European Union member states owe the biggest historical debt, having produced nearly half of all carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution. Meanwhile, rapidly growing industrial economies such as Russia, India and China are making up for lost time; China accounted for 29% of emissions in 2015. But such simplified national-level bookkeeping masks a much more complicated pattern of emissions. In each country, differences in individual wealth and consumption lead to vastly different impacts on the environment (see ‘Unequal emissions’).
Climate change is not merely a problem for atmospheric chemists and meteorologists, but also a socio-economic problem, driven by human consumption and behaviour. “Income and energy and emissions are very much intertwined,” says Massimo Tavoni, an economist at the Polytechnic University of Milan in Italy. “If you have inequality of income and wealth, you have inequality of carbon dioxide emissions — there’s no way around it.” Accordingly, a small but passionate community of researchers has been applying tools from sociology, economics and psychology to explore the interplay between wealth and emissions. They hope to develop fair and effective strategies that might compel heavy emitters to pay their share and mend their ways without holding back the masses — especially those struggling to get out of poverty.