BIT "Unequal household carbon footprints in China" was published in Nature-Climate Change
Translator: News Agency of BIT Zhou Xinyu
Editor: News Center of BIT Zhao Jie
Professor Wei Yiming from Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT), Professor Guan Dabo, a part-time professor from University of East Anglia (UEA), UK, Dr. Dominik Wiedenhofer from University Klagenfurt, Austria and Dr. Liu Zhu from California Institute of Technology worked together on the research "Unequal household Carbon footprints in China”, the results of which was published in Nature-Climate Change a few days ago.
The results show that the carbon footprint of households in China increased by 19% from 2007 to 2012, with 75% of the increase being consequence of higher consumption level of the middle and upper income groups. The carbon footprint of China's highest income group is now at the average level of European, while two-thirds of the population are still at a relatively low level. China's household carbon footprint and income inequality are huge challenges in reducing China's greenhouse gas emission.
The study used the latest available data (2007-2012) to quantify household consumption carbon footprints across 13 Chinese income groups (5 rural and 8 urban) for services, commodities, food, transportation and housing, and found out that the differences of consumption structure and quantity had caused the inequality in per capita carbon footprint. The top urban income group (5% of the nation's population) contributed 19% of China's total household carbon footprint, with a per capita carbon footprint of 6.4 tons per capita, nearly four times the country's per capita carbon footprint (1.7 tons per capita). The lower income groups in the city and rural residents, who account for 58% of China's total population, leave only 0.5-1.6 carbon footprint per capita. The carbon footprint of household consumption in China increased by 19% between 2007 and 2012, with 75% of the increase being due to risen consumption levels of the middle class and the rich.
There exist huge differences in ways of energy consumption between urban residents and rural residents. Typically, rural residents use traditional and locally contaminated energy carriers, such as straw, firewood and coal, meanwhile electricity and natural gas are becoming more common. In urban areas, modern energy carriers such as electricity, natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas are the main energy sources, and private car driving has also become one of the main driving forces of direct household energy consumption. Getting out of poverty is one of the key targets of social development, but it can also lead to a huge increase in carbon footprint. Each year, nearly 20 million people migrate from rural to urban areas, and adopt the westernized, high-carbon lifestyle. Urban middle-class and high-income people contribute 69% of China's total carbon footprint, and a rapidly Westernized lifestyle means more resource demands and a fast-growing carbon footprint. If each Chinese household reaches a high urban income or a European level, China's total carbon footprint will be tripled. The Westernized residents' lifestyle is a huge obstacle for mitigating climate change.
Globally, the world's richest 10% of the population contributes 40% to 51% of global CO2 emissions. Those rapidly affluent families in China and other developing countries, longed to turn into the Western more consuming, materialistic, high-carbon lifestyle. The current average household CO2 footprint in the EU is 6.7 tons CO2 per capita, compared to 10.4 tons per person in US. In India, the average CO2 footprint is 0.9 tons per head and 1.5 tons per head in Brazil. As a result, while reducing inequity of capita emissions, it is also necessary to avoid developing countries' shift to a more Western emission-intensive lifestyle, decoupling quality of life from consumption and CO2 emissions. Consumers in developed countries should play a leading role in advocating sustainable consumption, turning low-carbon life and sustainable consumption into a fashionable, alternative lifestyle. The author believes that a high level of lifestyle does not mean absolute high-income,and high-carbon consuming behavior, but should be the reflection of health and happiness. Some countries, such as Costa Rica and Thailand, have achieved a high living standard while maintaining their carbon footprint at around 1 ton per head, suggesting that low-carbon life and sustainable development are synergic. They also suggested that methods such as the carbon Gini index developed in the study could be used to develop sustainable consumption programs for leading consumer groups in certain consumer areas, or to guide policy designs aimed at reducing emissions and improving energy efficiency while reducing poverty.
Professor Wei Yiming from BIT and Professor Guan Dabo from UEA are the authors of this paper. This research was supported by the national key R & D program "Comprehensive Assessment of Economic Impacts on Climate Change" and the "Energy Economics and Climate Policy" project of National Natural Science Foundation of China.