Study highlights difference in environmental footprints between economic strata in India

A shopping mall in India

xpenditure on personal luxury goods drives PM 2.5 footprints of the rich. Image by Aasif Iqbal J/Flickr

  • A new study that analysed consumption data in India found stark differences in the water, particulate matter and carbon footprints between the poorest and richest households. Water footprint rises by six times, particulate matter doubles, carbon footprint sees an eight-fold rise for the latter.
  • The study underscores the significant influence of consumption patterns on environmental footprints. It finds that while basic food expenditure increases modestly among the wealthy, non-food and luxury spending escalates significantly.
  • The gap between the richest 10% and the next 10% was found to be the widest among categories, emphasising the need for policies targeting reducing demand for luxury goods to mitigate environmental impact.
  • It was also found that social pressures drive luxury expenditure among the affluent, while mass media influences spending habits among the poor and middle class. While education mitigates the influence of mass media, it does little to reduce the impact of affluent social networks on consumption choices.

Food consumption patterns exert the greatest influence on the differences in environmental footprints of Indians, especially as high-income households spend more on food in restaurants and in social events, says a study recently published in the Ecological Economics journal.

In 2023, India stood as the third most polluted nation globally while also recording the highest wealth inequality in its history. The study underscores the connection between increasing expenditure by the wealthy and environmental impacts.

A polluted beach in Mumbai.
A polluted beach in Mumbai. India is the third most polluted nation in the world with highest wealth inequality in its history. Photo by Wayan Vota/Flickr.

In particular, the study examines the impact of consumption on water use, air pollution and carbon footprint. The study examined expenditure data per year per capita rather than income, looking at expenditure in deciles starting from Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 173,000.

It finds that the per person annual expenditure rises by 17 times between the poorest to the richest families and with this, the carbon footprint sees an eight-fold rise, water footprint rises by six times, while particulate matter (PM2.5) footprint doubles.

The comparatively less-steep rise of PM2.5 footprint is attributed to the use of fuelwood and other polluting biomass among poorer households for cooking. Among the rich, the PM2.5 footprint is driven mostly by expenditure on personal goods such as luxury watches and high-end mobile phones followed by social functions and private transport.

When it comes to the carbon footprint of the rich, social functions top the charts followed by expenditure on jewellery and ornaments, furniture and fixtures and personal transport.

Going beyond carbon

The study used consumption expenditure data from India Human Development Survey (IHDS) 2011-12. “Though the data is old, there was no other survey which could give detailed consumption data, especially related to affluence,” said Soumyajit Bhar, Assistant Professor at School of Liberal Studies, BML Munjal University, who is the first author of the study.

Being a consumer survey, this also does not include direct emissions by governments and businesses but accounts for them as embedded in the products consumed.

Carbon emissions from India rank third in the global list, accounting for 2.83 billion tonnes of carbon, 7.6% of the total global carbon emissions. India’s per capita carbon emissions are, however, still low at 1.9 tonnes, compared to the United States’ 14.9 tonnes or global average of 4.7 tonnes.

“While there is deep inequality between the developed and developing world, there is also deep inequality within each country. Just like how we hold rich countries to account for their emissions, we also need to put some responsibility on rich Indians. This study does well to put a spotlight on the super rich and their consumption patterns,” said Nagraj Adve, member of Teachers Against the Climate Crisis, a group of teachers advocating for climate action and author of Global Warming in India: Science, Impacts, and Politics.

According to the study, the difference in expenditure on basic food, between the poorest and the richest families, increases in the latter by six times, while non-food expenditure rises by 26 times, and conspicuous and luxury expenditure shoots up by 47 times. Conspicuous and luxury expenditure includes any spending for pleasure-seeking or display of one’s social status.

“Even these figures would be at best an underestimate of the actual, because rich families are usually under-represented in the developmental surveys,” said Bhar.

A 2021 study done by a Japan-based Research Institute for Humanity and Nature had also concluded that rich Indians emit seven times more carbon dioxide than the poor. But that does not present the whole picture. “Carbon is an important global indicator but not the most significant issue in India considering our per capita carbon footprint is small,” said Bhar. “On the other hand, local and regional issues like water scarcity and air pollution have been a matter of great concern, especially for the poor. So, it was important to include these footprints along with carbon.”

Consumption matters more than intensity

The study also looks at intensities of footprints, meaning how big is the footprint per rupee spent across households. It was found that the carbon intensity of poorer households was bigger than the rich in the non-food category. This might be due to the use of kerosene by poorer families as fuel. But when it comes to the luxury/conspicuous category, the carbon and PM 2.5 intensities start to expand with rising income thus showing that the items being consumed by higher income groups are more environmentally damaging.

The intensities of the top 30% households in the luxury/conspicuous category are the same but the footprints of the top 10% are disproportionately bigger. Water footprint rises by 40%, PM 2.5 by 59% and carbon footprint by 50% between the second 10% and the richest 10% households.

A street market in Hyderabad.
A street market in Hyderabad. The study finds that items consumed by higher income groups are more environmentally damaging. Photo by Manfred Sommer/Flickr.

“This paper is in line with many other studies in that the most affluent brackets bear the most significant responsibilities,” said Jemyung Lee, a researcher at the Japan-based Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, who led the 2021 study. “It indicates that policies should focus on reducing demand of conspicuous/luxury consumption rather than relying solely on reducing pollution intensity through renewable grids and other technologies.”

On the other hand, if pollution intensity and its control remain the sole focus it can have adverse impacts on the marginalised. For instance, policies banning use of fuelwood or curtailing cultivation of rice due to high water footprint will directly impact the poorest families.

“There is a lot of debate going on regarding carbon tax which can be levied on services and products which score high on carbon emission. For that to work properly, however, the poor have to be provided a cushion through subsidies like free electricity,” said Adve. “Setting an absolute cap on emissions of the rich and wealth tax can also go a long way in addressing wealth inequality and needless consumption. On the other hand, offering free LPG to poorer households can help curb their biomass use which will have far-reaching benefits.”

Food and footprints

The study highlights that food is the biggest source of environmental footprints among all households. Direct water usage makes up only 5-7% of the total water footprint as most of the water consumption comes embedded in food products.

While subsistence items like rice and wheat, requiring heavy irrigation, make up the water footprints of the poor and middle class families, higher consumption of fruits and nuts do the same for the rich.

“Fruits and nuts, cereal products, and pulses make the water footprint from the food basket of the richest 10% households, 30% higher than that of the second 10% households. Though fruits and nuts are counted in luxury consumption, they are essential for a healthy diet, thus revealing the trade-offs between health and environmental benefits,” said Bhar.

A 2019 study had found that an affluent Indian consumes 2,477 kcal per day, which is 193 kcal more than recommended diet, and 336 kcal more than what an average Indian consumes. If all Indians start consuming an affluent diet, it can increase greenhouse gas emissions, water footprint and land use by 19 to 36%. On the other hand, if everyone shifts to healthy dietary intake, it will only lead to 3-5% rise in footprints.

Social pressures and media

How do you decide whether to spend on luxury items or not? An earlier analysis of the same IHDS data by Bhar found that being part of an affluent social circle builds the pressure to keep up with the compatriots and display wealth. One unit increase in the social network index led to 10–14% rise in luxury expenditure.

Skyscrappers in Mumbai.
An affluent area in Mumbai. Social pressures are driving luxury expenditures among the affluent class in India. Photo by Jiri Rezac/Flickr.

For the poor and middle class, normalisation of luxury consumption through mass media drives the expenditure. One hour of extra mass-media exposure per day pushed a household’s annual luxury expenditure by 4-7%. However, with the rise in higher education, the influence of mass media declined. But education did not insulate a household from the influence of affluent social networks and impulses to maintain social status through luxury consumption.

“This study shows that curbing consumption by the richest can reduce environmental impact. It will also free up ecological and developmental space for others because we have a finite carbon budget,” said Adve.


Banner image: Expenditure on personal luxury goods drives PM 2.5 footprints of the rich. Photo by Aasif Iqbal J/Flickr.

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