New research shows that income inequality is a contributor to carbon emissions.

New research shows that income inequality is tied to carbon emissions. Photo: Shutterstock

Researchers from Boston College have found that evidence that links carbon emissions with income inequality. Scientists have known for some time that national wealth and carbon emissions have been linked, but this is the first study that explores this link within individual U.S. states.

By exploring data from 1997 to 2012, the researchers learned that increases among the income of the top 10 percent of a given state’s population directly contributed to increased carbon emissions, which vary from state to state. Essentially, the richer the top 10 percent become, the more they contribute to carbon emissions.

“First, income concentration leads to concentrated political power and the ability to prevent regulations on carbon emissions,” said researcher Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College. “Second, high-income consumers are disproportionate carbon polluters.”

The researchers used an analytical tool that reports income inequality in a general sense—the Gini coefficient—but doesn’t show exactly where that inequality exists. For that, they turned to a different measure that captures the top 10 percent of a state’s population.

In addition to income, the researchers used factors such as population size, per capita gross domestic product, urbanization, manufacturing as a percentage of state GDP, fossil fuel production, and the level to which a state is committed to environmental regulation.

Although the Gini coefficient proved to be non-significant, the wealth of the top 10 percent is a strong predictor of carbon emissions.

This is increasingly important as the United States is a huge contributor to carbon emissions, and is facing a presidential term that will no doubt roll back a lot of environmental regulations at the federal level. But not everyone is going to go along with that: states will be taking it upon themselves to step up their own regulatory game.

“We think it is safe to say, in terms of environmental policy and action, it is going to be much more active at the state level than the federal level,” said study co-author Andrew Jorgenson. “Given the uncertainty of the regulatory environment at the federal level, states like California are saying they will not move away from their policies even if the federal agenda on climate change makes a 180-degree turn from the prior administration.”

The interesting thing about this study is that it not only helps scientists to understand the factors that force changes in climate, but it opens a conversation about the harmful effects of income inequality as well.

“Equalizing incomes has all kinds of potential benefits,” Jorgenson said. “This suggests a holistic view of sustainability, equalizing income distribution within the U.S. can have social and environmental benefits.”