Rich US households produce more CO2 each year from driving than the entire carbon footprint of poor households over 8 months

Posted on 17 Nov 2017 in

Rich households in the United States each create 12 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year on average from driving their cars – the equivalent of 8 months of a poor household’s entire carbon footprint, according to a new study published today (17 November 2017) by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

An analysis by researcher Lutz Sager puts a ‘carbon dioxide cost’ on household consumption by adding up the emissions that can be attributed to the goods, services and energy that households in the United States buy in a year and compares households with different incomes.

Sager used his analysis to calculate that every $1 spent on gasoline creates 3.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. The 10% of households in the United States with the highest incomes spent an average of $3300 per year on gasoline in 2009, producing 12 metric tons of carbon dioxide. The 10% of households with the lowest incomes emit 3.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year from using gasoline and emit only 18 metric tons for everything they buy all year.

Sager’s results, which use data from the United States from 1996 to 2009, show that the 10% of households with the highest income had an average annual carbon footprint of 59.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide per household in 2009 – more than three times as much as the 10% of households with the lowest income (with an average carbon footprint of 18.1 metric tons).

Despite having a smaller carbon footprint overall, poorer households spend a bigger proportion of their income on carbon-intensive products and services, such as fossil-fuel-based energy. The poorest 10% of households spend 7% of their income on utilities (which make up 42% of their carbon footprint). The richest 10% spend 4% of income on utilities (making up 29% of their carbon footprint).

The analysis concludes that progressive income redistribution in the United States could result in an increase in household carbon dioxide emissions. Sager calculates that transferring $1000 from a richer household to a poorer household could increase emissions created by that $1000 by 5% or 28.5 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide.

The research predicts that if the United States had the same household income distribution as Sweden, carbon dioxide emissions from private households would be 1.5% higher. If the United States had total income equality, emissions from private consumption would increase by 2.3% – or an extra 0.8 metric tons per household per year.

The analysis points out that development of clean technologies has a significant impact on household carbon dioxide emissions and could mean that households can become richer whilst also reducing their carbon footprints.

Between 1996 and 2009, average household carbon dioxide emissions in the United States across all incomes fell from 37.8 to 33.9 metric tons. Sager calculated that improvements in technology, such as cleaner electricity generation or more fuel efficient cars, which occurred during that period, had helped to keep carbon dioxide emissions from increasing. If technology had not improved, by 2009 a household with an average income would have had a carbon footprint of 57.9 metric tons.

Sager combined information on household yearly expenditure on different products and services from the United States Consumer Expenditure Survey and the Bureau of Labor Statistics with estimates of how much carbon dioxide is emitted per dollar of the product, based on data from World Input-Output tables.

Lutz Sager, author of the study and researcher at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

“My research highlights that there could be a dilemma for policy-makers in the United States, as well as in other developed countries, about how to increase income equality whilst also reducing greenhouse emissions.

“Lower income families are less responsible for climate change. Our research shows that per household, they produce less carbon dioxide emissions than richer households who consume more. At the same time, they may be impacted more by climate change as they are less able to afford to adapt to, for example, higher temperatures or increased flooding events. Big emitters like the United States need to find a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions whilst also increasing equality or they will disproportionately increase the burden on households on the lowest incomes.”

“Our research also shows there is no one simple solution. Part of the answer could be to combine redistributive taxes with increasing support for clean technologies and cheap and clean energy. This would shrink carbon footprints and lessen the increasing risks of climate which fall on poor households. But it will also cut down energy bills, disproportionately benefitting those on lower incomes who tend to spend more of their expenses on utilities.”

The results of the study are published today as a working paper, and will be submitted to a journal for publication.


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  1. The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment ( was launched at the London School of Economics and Political Science in October 2008. It is funded by The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment (