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The distribution of UK household CO2 emissions

A person pushing another person in a wheelchair. They are by a beach, with wind turbines in the background.

A study of the likely social distributional impacts of UK Government energy and climate change policies.

Project duration: May 2011 to March 2013

People who emit the least carbon in the UK are likely to suffer the harshest impacts of policies designed to cut the country’s carbon emissions.

This is the main finding of the report ‘Distribution of carbon emissions in the UK: implications for domestic energy policy’ written by CSE for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).

Launched in March 2013, the report revealed that low-income households face a ‘triple injustice’ in the wake of policies to cut carbon emissions and reduce fuel poverty.

This is because they:

  1. Benefit least from energy policies. While bills are predicted to fall for all households if government policies are successful, the wealthiest 10% will see their bills reduced by 12% by 2020, a cut of £182 – compared to just £69 (7%) for the 10% of lowest income households.
  2. Pay a higher share of the cost for policies. More of the costs of policy come from lower income households than from higher income households. And the lowest income are expected to spend 10.5% of household income on energy bills; the richest spend 1.3%. There will still be nearly 3 million fuel poor households in 2020 even if policies are successful.
  3. Emit the least. on average the richest 10% of households are responsible for three times more than the poorest 10% (16% of all emissions). The least well-off 10% contribute only 5%.

Emissions from top 10% earners (kgCO2)Emissions from bottom 10% earners (kgCO2)
Total emissions161435026
Mean aviation emissions 3116309
Mean private vehicle emissions 4598605
Mean household emissions 78963760
Figures from the report comparing emissions from the top and bottom 10% earners in the UK.

Simon Roberts, CSE’s Chief Executive, described how the injustices revealed by the report must inform future policy:

“The ultimate reason why this triple injustice exists is because, in spite of the rhetoric, successive governments don’t seem to have genuinely understood the importance of establishing fairness as a key building block of our climate policies … Ending this triple injustice is central to long-term policy success. That will require a much stronger link between the responsibility for causing emissions and the responsibility for paying for policies and taking action to cut them.”


Main report: Distribution of carbon emissions in the UK: implications for domestic energy policy
‘Key points’, 4-page ‘findings’ document
Figures of Distribution of Emissions
Supplementary project paper: distribution of household CO2 emissions in Great Britain
Supplementary project paper: transport and carbon emissions
Supplementary project paper: personal carbon allowances
Supplementary project paper: technical report

The distribution of UK household emissions

An earlier report for JRF, produced in 2011 and titled ‘The distribution of UK household CO2 emissions: Interim report’, revealed distinct social patterns in the way that emissions vary across UK households.

It showed that people in the 45–55 age group emit the most carbon, 50% more than that the under-25s. It also demonstrated that wealthier households have the highest overall emissions, with the top 10% of earners emitting more than twice as much carbon as the bottom 10%.

You can download the report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website.

CSE’s Joshua Thumim, who led the research team, said: “This work confirms what we have long suspected – there is a direct and significant relationship between household income and carbon emissions. Importantly this relationship is even stronger when flying and driving are taken into account. The challenge is to use this information to design fairer climate change policies”.

Travel accounts for much of this variation, with the top 10% of earners emitting five times as much carbon from flying than the bottom ten per cent, and three times as much from driving. Not surprisingly car ownership is itself associated with increased emissions: multi-car households have on average three times the emissions of those with no car.

The differences, though still significant, are smaller for household fuel use, with the top ten percent of earners emitting 45% more than the bottom 10%.

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