Spatial Income Inequality and Climate Change

Mark Altaweel


Among many different political issues, two have reoccurred frequently in the wider press and have been discussed by commentators. These are income inequality, or more broadly social inequality, and climate change. One question researchers have asked is how related are the two and if it is feasible to address both issues concurrently.

At a global level, the United Nations has highlighted that areas showing greater income inequality relative to richer countries are likely to be more vulnerable to effects of climate change. These communities will simply have less resources and capabilities in mitigating the effects of climate change, while their growth means there is a likely bias in how these countries approach different segment of their populations in their mitigation strategies.[1]

While this might a wider consensus among global policy analysis, the research community has also looked at more complex questions, including if economic development itself creates both greater social inequality and increased rates of greenhouse emissions. Research in China has shown that some relationship exists there. Regions that show higher and growing levels of income inequality, during China’s now decades long boom, have shown also that they tend to have greater CO2emissions on a per-capita basis. Spatial regressions indicate that in cities and rural regions, and not only in China, emission and wealth trends show a roughly 0.079% increase in CO2is seen when GINI coefficients, used to measure income inequality, increases by 1%.[2]

Nexus between climate change and inequalities.
Nexus between climate change and inequalities.

Studies, however, show that  CO2emissions and income inequality may follow an environmental Kuznets curve, whereby income inequality and emissions do initially have a positive relationship but that the relationship becomes negative at a certain point, where income may continue to grow but  CO2decreases.[3] Some studies suggest it is the nature of economic growth, which can exacerbate income inequality and CO2emissions, that could affect where and how different regions and cities may affect climate change. For instance, rapid growth with poor infrastructure development, such as in mass transit, is likely to exacerbate CO2emissions. That growth fuels income inequality, as a poor regulatory environment might be a related by-product of growth that legislation and national policy does not keep pace with. The Kuznets cure may reflect that eventually pollution, and climate change inducing emissions, may eventually become more limited as a country matures in its growth and can begin to invest in mitigation measures.[4]

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Location of census wards showing different combinations of public transport (PT) and car accessibility, and their pollution level.  Figure: da Schio, Sansen, & Boussauw, 2018.
Location of census wards showing different combinations of public transport (PT) and car accessibility, and their pollution level. Figure: da Schio, Sansen, & Boussauw, 2018.

While the trends of the Kuznets curve might be evident in developing countries, in more developed cities there has been less clear results. In the case of Brussels, high levels of pollution are found in sometimes desirable areas of cities where wealthier individuals live.[5] One study showed that increased wealth could drive increased consumption, but production could change in wealthy countries, particularly in technologies that reduce CO2emissions.[6]  Wealth, thus, can play a positive role in reducing emissions. On the other hand, another study showed that increasing wealth that concentrates also means that power becomes concentrated and could lead to less effective measure to mitigate climate change emissions through a lack of measures taken, particularly as mitigating strategies are see as counter to the interests of those who accumulate more wealth.[7]

The relationship between  CO2and climate change emissions in general and wealth inequality is not a clear one. Some studies have shown there is a  Kuznets curve effect, where increasing wealth can eventually reverse environmental degradation, including mitigating climate change emissions. On the other hand, power and wealth can also act as incentives to not apply strategies that may limit the growth of emissions, which can result in increase carbon and other emissions. Nevertheless, the topic is now of high interest, for researchers and politicians, and is likely to attract increased research in coming years.


[1]    For more on climate change and inequality and its potential impact on future adaptation and resilience, see:

[2]    For more on how income inequality relates to emissions in CO2, see:  Liu, Q., Wang, S., Zhang, W., Li, J., & Kong, Y. (2019). Examining the effects of income inequality on CO2 emissions: Evidence from non-spatial and spatial perspectives. Applied Energy, 236, 163–171.

[3]    For more on the Kuznets curve and its relationship to national income and inequality, see:  Demir, C., Cergibozan, R., & Gök, A. (2018). Income inequality and CO 2emissions: Empirical evidence from Turkey. Energy & Environment, 0958305X1879310.

[4]    For an example of rapid growth and emissions within a city that also displays high inequality, see:  Meyer-Ohlendorf, L. (2019). The Research Context: India and the Megacity of Hyderabad. In L. Meyer-Ohlendorf, Drivers of Climate Change in Urban India(pp. 49–79). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

[5]    For more on the Brussels study, see:  da Schio, N., Boussauw, K., & Sansen, J. (2019). Accessibility versus air pollution: A geography of externalities in the Brussels agglomeration. Cities, 84, 178–189.

[6]    For more on the study in the US showing consumption, wealth, and carbon emissions, see:  Mader, S. (2018). The nexus between social inequality and CO2emissions revisited: Challenging its empirical validity. Environmental Science & Policy, 89, 322–329.

[7]    For more on wealth inequality and CO2see: Knight, K. W., Schor, J. B., & Jorgenson, A. K. (2017). Wealth Inequality and Carbon Emissions in High-income Countries. Social Currents, 4(5), 403–412.

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.