SA’s first world problems

It turns out that South Africa’s legendary inequality runs deeper than anyone realised, and nowhere more so than in greenhouse emissions.


Six percent,” I tell Himself. “That’s what Africa contributes to the world’s carbon footprint. Just six percent.” And I return to rinsing the tin cans for recycling, doing my bit here in Ireland, and hey, are you also part of the polluting elite? I surely am. While I may recycle, re-use, ride the bus, and switch appliances off at the wall, I also take frequent flights, drive a car, have two houses, and eat a rich man’s diet.

However, you’re likely reading this in South Africa – at the foot of Africa with its six percent carbon footprint – so how could you possibly be part of the polluting elite?

By geography alone you’re doing the Lord’s work; you’re so terribly green. Well, it turns out that South Africa’s legendary inequality runs deeper than anyone realised, and nowhere more so than in greenhouse emissions.

Recently, the International Energy Agency collated the 2021 carbon emissions per person from 12 major countries, as well as the European Union – and they included South Africa (a major country!) in this study.

And in every single country –from South Korea to Brazil, from India to Canada – the richest 10% of the population created at least as much greenhouse pollution as the combined bottom 50%.

In the US and China, the top 10’s share was higher than the entire bottom 70%. But guess who came first overall? Yes, our South Africa presents the most extreme example of carbon inequality in the entire world – the greenhouse gas emissions of the richest 10% of South Africans are equal to that of the remaining 90%!

It’s not a case of everyone “doing their bit” to fix it either. Simply by being poor(er), by not being able to afford to live large, 90% are already carrying far more than their share of the burden by default.The rest of us – all the polluting elite – from South Africa to India, from Japan to Europe – have the capacity to alter our lifestyles without significantly impacting our well-being.

I mean, do any of us really need that gas-guzzler, that flight to Cape Town, those mood lights, the latest gadget, a new couch, aircon, out-of season fruit, a perfect green lawn, meat every dinner time…?

Talk about First World problems – and now no more so than in South Africa

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