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Income inequality is linked to carbon emissions within US states, study shows

Boston College sociologists have shown that within the US, carbon emissions are highest in states with the greatest income inequality. This expands on previous research, which established the correlation on a global scale.

It has been well-documented that countries in which the wealthy are among the world’s wealthiest tend to have the highest carbon emissions. This is the first study, however, which has focused entirely on carbon emissions between US states.

Using data from a range of sources, the researchers looked at state-level carbon emissions between 1997 and 2012. They took account of measures such as population size, urbanisation, per capita GDP, fossil fuels production and the states’ commitments to environmental regulation.

Statistical analysis showed that a state’s carbon emissions were positively correlated with wealth inequality. Based on 2012 state-level carbon emissions, they estimated that a one per cent increase in income share of the wealthiest 10 per cent of a state’s population is associated with hundreds of thousands of additional tonnes of carbon emissions.

Texas was the worst-offending state, with a one per cent increase in income equality being associated with up to 930,000 tonnes of extra carbon. California, Pennsylvania, Florida and Illinois followed close behind.

Spending power drives carbon-intensive consumption, the researchers report in their study - published in Ecological Economics – but so does the political and economic clout of the wealthiest individuals.

“First, income concentration leads to concentrated political power and the ability to prevent regulations on carbon emissions,” said Juliet Schor, co-author of the study. “Second, high-income consumers are disproportionate carbon polluters.”

Individual states have increasingly been taking the lead in shaping environmental protection policies.

Jerry Brown, Governor of California, recently pledged that the state would maintain its wide-ranging environmental regulations, irrespective of any federal shifts towards deregulation, and last week a coalition of states began a legal challenge against US President Donald Trump’s efforts to roll back carbon emission regulations.

“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 co-author Andrew Jorgensen.

“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.”

As well as advancing understanding of the socio-economic factors that shape our climate, Professor Jorgensen believes their results contribute to a growing body of studies on the wider impacts of income inequality, such as poor health and wellbeing.

“Equalising incomes has all kinds of potential benefits,” said Jorgenson. “This suggests a holistic view of sustainability, equalising income distribution within the US can have social and environmental benefits. And they can have a global benefit too, since the US is such a significant contributor to climate change.”

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