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India’s biggest spenders emit seven times more traceable emissions than the poor

A thermal powerplant situated @ 20 kms away of raichur [own work, CC license]. Energy infrastructure example.
The Raichur Thermal Power Station, a coal-fired power plant in the Raichur district of Karnataka. Image credit: Tanzeel Ahad [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]
The top twenty percent of high-spending households in India are responsible for seven times as much emissions as the poor, according to a recent study published in Global Environmental Change.

Those households that had the top twenty percent of high-expenditure were found to have a carbon footprint with seven times more traceable emissions than those who spend fewer than Rs 140. Analysis of socioeconomic data showed that the average carbon footprint among rich households stood at 1.32 tonne per capita annually, whilst poorer households saw 0.19 tonne per capita annually. This is significantly less than the national average of 0.56 tonne annually. 

Despite this disparity, the largest gap in household carbon footprints was identified between the higher and highest expenditure households, according to the study. This expenditure-emissions relationship weighs in dramatically on conversations of poverty alleviation and India’s climate goals moving forward.

What is causing the emissions? 

When comparing the socioeconomic emissions of each household, the study also found that low- and medium-level expenditure households saw their carbon footprints driven by several factors. These include electricity consumption at 0.19 ton CO2 per capita, food consumption at 0.12 ton CO2 per capita, and consumables consumption at 0.07 ton CO2 per capita. 

Low- and medium-level expenditure households also showed a level of reliance on alternative biofuels such as firewood, dung cake, or kerosene. These are not only important in terms of their carbon footprint contribution, they also emit high concentrations of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide. These all contribute significantly to air quality. 

Conversely, India’s top expenditure households’ carbon footprints are made up by private transport, public transport, durable goods, and services such as entertainment. Increasing population and a need to travel mean that roads are getting busier, with some vehicles’ dangerous level of tail-pipe emissions contributing significantly to private transport emissions

Coal as an energy source in India 

When analysing energy usage it is important to recognise much of India’s energy consumption, notably electricity, is powered by coal. Previous research from Carbon Brief has shown that coal still plays a fundamental role in supplying power in India with the country’s fleet of coal plants supplying 21 gigawatts, as of 2019. These figures can now be caveated by the fact that India did see a historic drop in coal-based power generation in 2019, the first fall in 29 years

Recent years have indeed seen government efforts to reorient the energy structure towards renewable energy. Nonetheless, experts in the past have called for a rethink of India’s energy infrastructure. 

“Coal-fired generation fell three percent,” the report by Ember said. “However, coal still contributes 72 percent to the Indian electricity mix, and India is still building new coal plants. In 2019, GEM data shows there was eight GW of new coal capacity brought online, with almost no old coal plants closed.” 

Coal is expected to still be a key source of power. The Indian government projected that there will be 238GW of coal capacity in 2027. However, to meet climate goals set out in the Paris agreement the country cannot afford to open new coal plants. Instead, they must abandon plans to ensure they are compatible with targets of temperatures not rising above 1.5℃.  

“It’s critical that India build no new coal plants and also begin retiring existing ones, particularly older, highly polluting plants,” Varun Sivaram, senior research scholar at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy told GreenTechMedia. “All of this will require substantial investment in a modern, flexible electricity system.”

Addressing climate change and poverty collectively 

When considering how to transition a country like India towards low-carbon, modern energy systems and meet agreed climate goals, poverty alleviation comes significantly into the equation. Studies have shown that poverty alleviation would make the poor less vulnerable to climate shocks given that they have a disproportionate effect on those emitting less CO2 per capita. However, more than this, climate change could also reverse past poverty reduction achievements, and hinder future poverty alleviation efforts

Climate change mitigation plans must be considerate of poverty and socio-economic factors, as shown by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. India’s efforts to address both must see climate change and poverty alleviation must go hand in hand as Nature attests to. When done under the best circumstances with policies complementing one another, climate change efforts can dovetail to enhance adaptive capacity, diversify livelihoods, improve access to credit, and strengthen traditional communal systems of mutual support. 

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