95% of EU households “living beyond planetary limits”

Only 5% of EU households have carbon footprints that would ensure global temperatures stay below a point that doesn’t tip us into runaway climate change, according to a new report.

UK and Norwegian researchers found that out of a study of 275,000 household budget surveys from 26 countries, only 5% produce the equivalent to 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per person per year – the estimated limit of what we should expend to keep the global temperature below 1.5°C by 2030.

Although it’s not clear exactly how much CO2 we can produce before we soar past 1.5°C, it is clear that we’re using more than our share. The researchers found in the EU, the average carbon footprint is equivalent to roughly eight tonnes of CO2 per person. If we’re to keep to the Paris Agreement, that must fall by about a third over the next decade.

The research also found households in the top 1% of polluters in the EU have carbon footprints that are 22 times larger than the safe limit of 2.5 tonnes. On average, people in this group emit greenhouse gases equivalent to 55 tonnes of CO2 per person per year.

According to researchers, this 1% comprises of the “relatively wealthy, though perhaps not private-jet wealthy. Their annual net income is around €40,000 per person on average.”

Meanwhile, the top 10% of polluters in the EU account for 27% of the total EU carbon footprint, a greater contribution than that of the bottom 50%. These stark differences in carbon footprints, according the researchers, are rooted in the things people buy and consume.

The main culprits

Regular flights are responsible for 41% of the carbon footprint of the top 1% of emitters, and almost all flights taken in the EU are by the top 10% of polluters, according to the report.

Despite this, airlines have received huge government bailouts all the while the evidence is clear that propping up this industry runs counter to a green recovery. Alongside this, kerosene tax exemptions continue to effectively subsidise flying, making it relatively cheap compared to other transport options.


Car travel, say the researchers, makes up close to a third of the carbon footprint among the top 10% of EU emitters. At the same time, poorer people spend a larger share of their wages on transport, including fuel, road tax and car insurance. “Policies that increase the price of car travel, such as fuel duty rises, could hurt the poorest most if they aren’t accompanied by support for switching to cleaner alternatives such as public transport,” urge the researchers.

“Policymakers need to stop incentivising luxuries like air travel and better address the car dependency that is most pronounced for people with lower incomes. To reduce the need for cars, governments should provide adequate public transport, cycling and walking infrastructure. They should also help to redesign cities, increase urban density of residents and jobs and actively target social practices and business models that reinforce car reliance,” they add.

The link between carbon footprints and income is complex. While the wealthiest are clearly responsible for the highest emissions, the report showed Denmark and France have much lower carbon footprints for the same level of income compared with other European countries. This, according to the researchers, could be “because they generate more of their electricity from nuclear and renewables. Both countries also have comparably robust welfare states, with expansive public services and public transport. This could ensure that people there have more of their basic needs met and aren’t as compelled to buy lots of stuff, as in other countries.”

The researchers make a number of recommendations to address this: “Reducing the carbon intensity of global supply chains could ensure that everyone can have adequate nutrition, shelter, education, healthcare and mobility within planetary limits.” Moreover, they argue “airport expansions, motorway extensions and fossil fuel subsidies are locking us into a future with less opportunity to achieve climate targets and a good standard of living for all in Europe and around the world.”

Take action

Simple actions that can save you money are available to everyone right now. Avoid flying and driving non-electric vehicles as much as possible, switch your energy supplier to one that provides renewables only and cut down on your meat and dairy. But we must also pressure our governments to tackle inequality and tax the heaviest polluters more whilst supporting the poorest in society.

For more information on how you can play a role in fighting the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced, click on the icons below:


%d bloggers like this: