Carbon Inequality: How Climate Change is Disproportionality Affecting Indigenous Communities

Rising sea levels adversely affecting indigenous communities in Indonesia. (Photograph: Getty Images.) 

Extreme carbon inequality is pushing the world to the climate brink, as the world’s poorest 3.5 billion people who contribute little to carbon emissions are the most affected by climate impacts such as floods, droughts, and storms.

In recent decades carbon emissions have rocketed, with global annual carbon emissions growing by around 60% from 1990 to 2015. According to data derived from Oxfam, the richest 1% of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon emissions as the 3.1 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity. 

This is a clear case of extreme carbon inequality, also known as carbon colonialism. It can be defined as the ability of wealthier countries to effectively outsource emissions to less wealthy ones, and in turn, destroy the land of Indigenous communities who are contributing the least to the climate crisis. 

Clearly, there is cause for concern, but who exactly are Indigenous People and how is carbon inequality adversely affecting their land and livelihoods?

Who are indigenous people? 

There are over 370 million Indigenous people around the world spread over more than 90 countries and they represent about 5% of the world’s population, with 70% of them living in Asia. 

Amnesty International provides a list of characteristics that can be used to identify Indigenous Peoples and emphasises that they have an incredibly strong link to their territories and surrounding natural resources. 

This special relationship to their land is integral to their identity, and their land ownership rights are recognised under international law. Furthermore, their land is home to over 80% of our planet’s natural resources, such as oil, timber, and minerals. 

However, their land is being routinely polluted by governments and private companies from richer countries, meaning carbon inequality is actively destroying the very land that is meant to be protected under international law!

Ultimately, the overconsumption from wealthier countries is fuelling this crisis, but how stark is the contrast between carbon emissions from richer countries compared to Indigenous Communities?

Carbon inequality between the rich and poor

Humans on average release tens of billions of C02 into the atmosphere every year, but they are disproportionately produced by people in wealthier countries who live more carbon-intensive lifestyles. According to the Hot or Cool Institute, the UK emits 8.5 tonnes of carbon a year. A key contributor to this is flying, despite more than 90% of people have never flown, and just 1% of the world’s population being responsible for 50% of emissions from flying. 

To demonstrate the disparity of carbon emissions, data derived from Nature Sustainability reveals the national average carbon footprints from six regions and three countries. Their findings have been visualised in the chart below:

The data reveals that the region with the highest average carbon footprint is the United States and it is twelve times higher than the carbon footprint of South and Southeast Asia, which is where many Indigenous Communities are situated. Furthermore, the first four regions are below the target range of 1.61-2.8tCO2 for carbon footprints to limit climate warning, whereas Russia, Europe, and the United States well exceed that. 

It is one thing to be aware of the clear inequality of carbon emissions and how little poorer regions are contributing to the climate, but it is even more devastating to see how that is directly affecting Indigenous People’s lives and their sacred land. 

Climate change and its effects on Indigenous Communities

In 2018, a devastating earthquake that then triggered a tsunami hit Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island, and the devastating results can be seen in the above images. Further video footage of the disaster was shared on social media, showing collapsed houses and a girl pinned under rubble pleading for help.

Natural disasters such as this, as well as wildfires, typhoons and hurricanes, are being exacerbated by the change in climate and are resulting in severe destruction of Indigenous communities throughout the world. Due to Indigenous Peoples’ dependence and close relationship with their environment, they are among the first to feel the adverse effects of climate change.

Data obtained from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs further emphasises this, stating that Indigenous communities are routinely forced to migrate away from their lands due to their land being destroyed. This in turn leads to double discrimination for both indigenous peoples and migrants which therefore makes them more vulnerable to trafficking and smuggling. Furthermore, constantly having to adapt to the new conditions they are placed under requires financial stability and resources that most Indigenous Communities simply don’t possess. 

This is clearly a crisis that calls for significant action, but what steps have been made in order to support developing countries and help them deal with the adverse effects of climate change?

What has been done?

During the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, hundreds of Indigenous activists took to the streets of Glasgow and protested for greater action, climate justice, and for their voices to be taken more seriously.  Tiana Jackiecevich, one of the activists who attended a march on November 6th, announced how important it was for their voices to be heard:

“Climate change is a matter of life and death for our communities, so it is vital for our voices to be heard and for action to take place.”

The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, made several pledges during COP26, demanding that more affluent countries follow in Scotland’s lead to help nations that are most adversely affected by climate change.

Sturgeon spoke at a COP26 event with Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakata and announced that:

“We’ve benefited through generations from the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere and countries like Vanessa’s are paying the price.”

The Scottish government promised to spend £9m a year in order to aid indigenous territories, in the hope to mitigate the disastrous effect of the increased temperature. 

Finally, Amnesty International has supported Indigenous Communities by bringing about the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which establishes a framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, wellbeing and rights of the world’s Indigenous Peoples.

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