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Study: Top 1 Percent Responsible for 15 Percent of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Fifteen days for a household in the 0.1 percent emits more than the lifetime of a household in the bottom 10 percent.

The richest households are responsible for a vastly disproportionate share of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., a new study finds.

According to a study published on Thursday in PLOS Climate, the richest 10 percent of U.S. households are responsible for over 40 percent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Further, the top 1 percent alone account for between 15 and 17 percent of emissions.

In order to arrive at this conclusion, study authors looked at not only household wages but also investments to determine household wealth and their climate emissions. Doing this, lead author Jared Starr said, allowed researchers to examine how income-generating methods contribute to the climate crisis, rather than focusing on consumption.

“Consumption-based approaches to limiting greenhouse gas emissions are regressive. They disproportionately punish the poor while having little impact on the extremely wealthy, who tend to save and invest a large share of their income,” Starr said in a statement. “Consumption-based approaches miss something important: carbon pollution generates income, but when that income is reinvested into stocks, rather than spent on necessities, it isn’t subject to a consumption-based carbon tax.”

Starr, a sustainability researcher at University of Massachusetts Amherst, went on to turn the traditional question of how carbon emissions are generated and their link to income on its head. “What happens,” Starr asked, “when we focus on how emissions create income, rather than how they enable consumption?”

The study looked at 30 years of data to determine how investments can support direct and indirect emissions. Study authors examined investment income from a power plant, for instance, which produces emissions both at the power plant and downstream on the supply chain.

The higher the income bracket, the higher the proportion of emissions that comes from investment income, the study found. Further, white Americans had the largest carbon impact, while Black households had the lowest share of emissions.

Researchers also looked at a group they categorized as “super emitters,” who create an extremely high amount of emissions per household. They found that almost all super emitters were from the top 0.1 percent of household income.

“This research gives us insight into the way that income and investments obscure emissions responsibility,” said Starr. “For example, 15 days of income for a top 0.1 percent household generates as much carbon pollution as a lifetime of income for a household in the bottom 10 percent. An income-based lens helps us focus in on exactly who is profiting the most from climate-changing carbon pollution, and design policies to shift their behavior.”

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