Can carbon footprints shrink as economies grow?
Bartlett Shanghai-Suburb

Shanghai Suburb. Image: Wondereye, CC BY-ND 2.0 license.

Is it possible to successfully fight the climate crisis while reducing income inequality? This is the question that has driven our research this year, based on a study of the carbon footprints of rural and urban Chinese households. And our conclusion? Perhaps surprisingly: yes. 

Our research takes an in-depth look at the specifics of carbon and income inequality at the household level in China – a good base from which to learn lessons for societies across the world – by comparing the carbon footprints of different income groups. Many studies have estimated the inequality of carbon emissions at national or sub-national levels, but studies comparing household-level carbon inequality are still limited. 

Why is this important? Mitigating the climate crisis and reducing inequality are both critical goals for sustainable development. While great disparities in the average carbon footprints of households exist – due to differences in income level, local conditions and lifestyles – there is growing understanding that the increase in income resulting from economic growth is not sufficient to reduce poverty and inequality if it is not inclusive. It also needs to take careful account of the three key dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental. The analysis on the differences in carbon footprints at the household level provides information for policymakers to understand the co-benefits of the two goals.

China aims to consider social equality in its response to the climate crisis by allocating more responsibilities on climate change mitigation to its wealthier regions. However, this ignores the fact that there are substantial differences in carbon footprints across households. We estimated household carbon footprints for 12 income groups – five rural and seven urban – in 30 Chinese provinces between 2007 and 2012. We subsequently used carbon-footprint Gini coefficients – a statistical dispersion measure of inequality – to measure carbon inequality for households across provinces.

The results show that the top five per cent of income earners were responsible for 17% of the national household carbon footprints in 2012, while the bottom half of income earners caused only 25%. Urban residents, accounting for 53% of China’s population, created 74% of the national household carbon footprint. The average per capita footprint of urban residents was 2.5 times that of rural residents.

Carbon inequality declined with economic growth in China across space and time in two ways. First, carbon footprints were more similar in the wealthier coastal regions than in the poorer inland regions. Second, China’s national carbon footprint declined over the five years of the study. This means that economic growth not only increases income levels, but also contributes to an overall reduction in carbon inequality in China.


Aerial view of Downtown Sinuiju. Image: Baycrest, CC BY-SA 2.5 license.


Mukomuko by plane. Image: sbamueller, CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

To reduce carbon inequality requires an increase in income of the poor, and changes of lifestyles and consumption patterns and thus the reduction of carbon emissions of higher-income households. By encouraging green lifestyles, especially among wealthy groups, carbon footprints can be reduced by changes in expenditure structures towards low-carbon goods and products.

Demographic change – for example, a dynamic composition of population through rural-urban migration – can also be an influence. When the rural poor move to urban areas and climb the income (and thus consumption) ladder, the carbon footprint Gini coefficients tend to decrease (that is, the carbon footprint is more equally distributed across households).

Poverty is still one of the biggest global challenges for achieving a better and more sustainable future for all. The UN’s most recent estimates suggest that more than 700 million people live in extreme poverty ($1.90 a day), while the World Bank estimates that an additional 71 million people will fall into extreme poverty in 2020 due to Covid-19. But lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty will result in the growth of carbon emissions. Therefore, carbon footprints of richer people need to be reduced to achieve a decline of total emissions.

Our conclusions, in the paper 'Economic development and converging household carbon footprints in China' published in

Nature Sustainability
, provide policy implications to understand the interactions and trade-offs between measures targeting inequality alleviation, poverty eradication and climate crisis mitigation.

By assessing the costs and benefits of climate change adaptation and exploring the appropriate path to reduce inequality, climate crisis mitigation and poverty alleviation can achieve mutual benefits.

Bartlett Zhifu Mi
Dr Zhifu Mi

Associate Professor in Climate Change Economics, The Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management 

D'Maris Coffman headshot
Professor D’Maris Coffman

Professor in Economics and Finance of the Built Environment, The Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management 

Jing Meng headshot
Dr Jing Meng

Lecturer in Economics and Finance of the Built Environment, The Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management 

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