Huge challenge to reduce global inequality
The prevailing situation is destroying both climate and decent living standards
Climate scientists have responded by exploring other scenarios to reduce energy demand. The most prominent is the global low energy demand scenario. This suggests that a 40 per cent reduction in energy use can be achieved by 2050 by way of several structural changes to energy systems
Joel Millward-Hopkins/Yannick Oswald
Notwithstanding the fact that energy consumption is essential for human wellbeing, the ground-reality is that there is enormous inequality in energy use worldwide. It is to such an extent that the top 10 per cent of global energy consumers use roughly 30 times more energy than the bottom 10 per cent.
It should be understood that our energy use drives climate change. In order to maintain a safe climate, we may have to use less energy in the future. To achieve this, while ensuring that everyone enjoys a decent standard of living, requires drastic reductions in global energy inequality.
In a recent study, we modelled how much energy inequality would have to be reduced to secure both human wellbeing and climate safety. We found that the gap in energy consumption between the world’s lowest and highest energy consumers would have to reduce eight-fold by 2050. However, if the prevailing energy inequalities remain, then more than four billion people in the global south and over 100 million in the north will be unable to enjoy a decent standard of living by 2050.
The global south refers to countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America while the global north consists of countries typically thought of as the ‘developed’ western world, with the inclusion of richer Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Low energy decent living: Most climate scenarios that limit global warming to safe levels do not assume that energy consumption will reduce. They, instead, rely on the use of negative emissions technologies such as biomass combustion with carbon capture or direct air capture. But these technologies are unproven at scale and could conflict with wildlife and food production. Research suggests that large-scale bioenergy production could substantially increase rates of deforestation and food prices.
Climate scientists have responded by exploring other scenarios to reduce energy demand. The most prominent is the global low energy demand scenario. This suggests that a 40 per cent reduction in energy use can be achieved by 2050 by way of several structural changes to energy systems. These include energy efficiency improvements coupled with reducing travel or using fewer carbon intensive materials like steel. In this case, living standards would be raised in the global south and maintained in the global north.
Decent living energy: This is the minimum energy required for the material conditions needed to provide decent living standards. The amount of energy needed is then calculated using data on the efficiency of available technologies. Research, which we co-authored in 2020, estimates decent living energy to be about 15 gigajoules annually for each person. This is just one-tenth of the average American's annual energy consumption.
Good news but with a catch: We combined these two lines of research with data on global energy inequality to explore the issues crucial to sustainable development. Low energy demand is a sustainable level of global energy demand way above the 15 gigajoules each person requires. This is good news but it does not guarantee everyone access to a decent living energy. After all, enough food is produced to feed the world's population, yet people still go hungry.
Average numbers for energy use do not apply to all people. If energy inequality remains and global energy demand follows the low energy demand scenario, then billions of people would remain below the energy threshold required for a decent standard of living. But the decent living energy threshold is a hard constraint that no one should fall below. Given this constraint and the need for a safe climate, energy inequality must fall - and drastically at that.
Unprecedented change: The size of this challenge becomes clear when we consider the close relationship between energy and income inequality. For example, the top one per cent of the world's population has been responsible for 23 per cent of global emissions since 1990. In order to reduce global energy inequality by the amount we suggest will demand that income inequality falls to levels currently seen in European countries like Norway, with its generous welfare system. The rate at which income inequality would need to reduce to maintain decent living standards in a safe climate would exceed rates seen in the so-called ‘golden age of capitalism’, after World War II.
During this period (1950–1975), the share of income captured by the top one per cent earners in the US fell from 17 per cent to 10 per cent. But changes to income inequality that are caused by major economic shocks can be unpredictable and uncontrollable.
On an average, the level of global income inequality seen in the last 150 years of capitalism has remained persistently high. Inequality has slightly reduced between countries, but inequality within them has grown.
Income in fast-growing countries like China is catching up with western European nations. But income inequality, particularly in wealthy countries, has widened. In 2021, the top 10 per cent of earners in the USA received 45.6 per cent of national income, compared to 33.5 per cent in 1970. This makes us sceptical that climate collapse can be prevented and social deprivation can be reduced without transforming the economic system. But we can't rule that out.
Perhaps the economy will change in a way that allows the world's rich to remain so but would use less energy. This would make room for low energy consumers to increase their consumption. The world's energy supply may also be increased more sustainably in the future, allowing consumption at the bottom to rise despite persisting energy inequality.
Or perhaps the reductions in inequality that may be needed will be achieved through economic transformation towards a system that doesn't need to keep growing unsustainably to reduce inequality. Whatever the answer, business as usual won't do.
(The writers are from University of Leeds)