The top 20% of high-expenditure households in India are responsible for seven times the emissions traceable to the poor who spend less than $1.9 (Rs 140) a day, says a recent study by the Japan-based Research Institute for Humanity and Nature. The mean carbon footprint of every Indian was estimated at 0.56 tonne per year – 0.19 tonne per capita among the poor and 1.32 tonne among the rich.

Emissions from India rank third in the global list, accounting for 2.46 billion metric tonnes of carbon or 6.8% of the total global emissions. India’s per capita carbon emissions are, however, still low at 1.84 tonnes compared to the United States’ 16.21 tonnes.

Food and electricity are the two areas of spending that account for most emissions in India across socio-economic groups, as per the study that combines household expenditure data from the 2013 survey of the National Sample Survey Organisation with data on the global supply chain. Among the rich, the other high emission-causing expenditures relate to private transport, durables and non-cereal food items, as we detail later.

The widest variation in household carbon footprints in the study is observed between the higher and highest expenditure households, not between the low- and medium-expenditure households.

Poverty eradication measures that seek to move the bottom 20% of the population to the low-expenditure category will thus cause a rise of only 1.97% in carbon emissions, indicating that pro-poor development causes little environmental damage, the study concluded. But this would not be true if India’s economic policies continue to help its rich and upper-middle-class: Moving its middle-expenditure families to the higher expenditure group will result in a 10% rise in carbon emissions. If all Indians start consuming as the rich do, there will be a nearly 50% rise in emissions.

To control the climate crisis at the national level, India thus needs to address inequalities, said the study. If economic growth does allow India’s middle classes to move into higher expenditure brackets, India can control the potential explosion in emissions by reworking its policies on food and energy use, it added.

“The study shows that rich Indians are consuming more of all types of goods and hence have a larger carbon footprint,” said Ulka Kelkar, director, climate programme, World Resources Institute, India. “The poor, on the other hand, consume very little but bear the maximum brunt of the climate crisis whether in the form of heatwaves, cyclones, floods and other extreme weather events.”

This study presents the first nation-wide, region- and class-specific assessment of carbon footprint using the consumption data across 623 districts and 2,03,313 households. This does not, however, include emissions by governments and businesses.

Cars for rich, soaps for poor

The findings on India are in line with the earlier conclusions of global research – between 1990 and 2015, the richest 1% of the world’s population were responsible for more than twice the carbon pollution than the 3.1 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity.

In India’s low and medium-level expenditure households, the carbon footprint is primarily driven by consumption of electricity (0.19 tonne/capita), food (0.12 tonne/capita) and consumables (0.07 tonne/capita).

Consumables such as detergents, soaps and clothing drove more carbon footprints in lower expenditure households than rich ones, making up for 17% of total emissions. Higher demand for durable goods (8.3%) and private transport (7.2%) led the list of emission-causing factors more among higher expenditure households than others.

Energy and food – biggest emitter groups

Electricity consumption caused the maximum household carbon footprints across all socio-economic groups, the study calculated, ranging from 26% in low-expenditure households to 36% among the rich. The least household emissions came from spending on education, gas, medical care and other energy like fuelwood, dung cake and kerosene.

Electricity is the biggest driver of India’s carbon emissions due to its reliance on coal-based power plants. Coal accounts for 74% of India’s electricity generation and was the source of one-third of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Food is the second major driver of carbon emissions but consumption patterns varied greatly, as per the study. While low- and medium-expenditure households mostly relied on grains (41%-49%), the rich showed only 28.7% of grains in their food basket. Affluent Indians spend twice what low-expenditure homes do on animal products, alcohol, other beverages, confectionery and restaurants, and three times as much on fruit.

Agriculture, including crops and livestock, led to 22% of India’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. Around 87% of the greenhouse gas emissions related to food items occur during production, followed by preparation (10%), processing (2%) and transport (1%), found a 2010 study done by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.

Fertiliser production and use accounted for 44% of emissions during cultivation of cereals, and irrigation and machinery 38% and 18%, respectively found a 2019 study. Electricity consumption for agricultural use in 2017-18 was over 2,00,000 gigawatt-hour annually, around 18% of the total national consumption.

A non-vegetarian meal that included mutton caused the most amount of greenhouse gas emission (the equivalent of 980 g CO2), followed by a vegetarian meal with dairy (the most common daily diet in India) at 700 g CO2, said the Indian Agricultural Research Institute study. Diets with vegetables and chickens or eggs shared the third spot at 653 g CO2 while a vegan diet scored the lowest, at 544 g CO2.

Rice and wheat were the most energy-intensive cereals because of their high irrigation requirements.

West emits more than the east

Carbon emissions vary widely in rural and urban India. Mega districts like Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata showed carbon footprints well above the national per capita average of 0.56 tonne. Gurugram topped the charts at 2.04 tonnes, 10 times the emissions from Boudh, a central district in Odisha that reported the lowest carbon footprint at 0.21 tonne.

Western India had a bigger carbon footprint than eastern, and inland areas did better than coastal. “The difference could be because of big cities located on the coasts and a state like Kerala which has a higher degree of development when compared to inland regions,” said Kelkar.

Household carbon footprints appeared to also vary modestly between communities, the study found. Among major religious groups, Sikh and Buddhist households had a higher per capita average carbon footprint at 0.69 tonne and 0.62 tonne respectively. This was followed by Christian households (0.58 tonne), Hindu (0.56 tonne) and Muslim households (0.53 tonne). Among the rich, Sikh households had the highest footprint, followed by Christian homes.

On average, Buddhists spent the least, and Sikhs the most, on animal products even though they spent comparatively less on the total food basket. Muslims and Christians spent an equal share on dairy and meat products. Hindus and Jains mainly consumed dairy products.

Major disparities emerged in the use of electricity and transport among communities: Sikh households tend to spend more on electricity and transport. Although Christians spend the most on transportation of any religious group in India, Sikhs spend more on private transport, increasing their average per capita carbon footprint by 0.03 tonne.

Shifts needed in energy, food policy

Phasing out coal, investing in renewables and promoting energy-efficient production of food and other consumables can help India reduce its emissions, the study suggested. India has already set a target to increase the share of non-fossil fuel energy in its total energy mix to 40% by 2030.

India should promote public transport and introduce carbon pricing of goods and services to manage carbon-friendly consumption if economic growth were to move more middle-class Indians into the high-income category, the study added.

But carbon pricing, a tax or cess on goods and services that score high on carbon emissions, could be a tricky concept in the Indian context, said experts. “Many countries have been toying with this idea for years but there is a concern that levying a tax can burden the poor if not done properly,” said Soumya Dutta, co-convener, South Asian People’s Action on Climate Crisis, a coalition of organisations and individuals focussed on raising awareness about and influencing climate policies. “For instance, India has been increasing tax on diesel for the past few years but it harms the small farmer using the fuel to run an irrigation pump more than a rich SUV owner. Carbon pricing can only work properly if it’s focussed and prohibitive. A tax of Rs 25,000 on cars will not stop people from buying them. A Rs 2 lakh tax can be prohibitive but is not feasible due to political compulsions.”

How can India contain emissions caused by food consumption, second highest after energy? “There are many options that can be easily applied at home. Food-related transport emission is not so big, but diet shift, less wastage, and less carbon-intensive production are critical to reducing food-related emissions,” Jemyung Lee, the first author of the study, told IndiaSpend.

India’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions can fall up to 25% if families include coarse cereals, such as millets, and leafy vegetables in their diets, a change that can also help combat nutritional deficiencies, found a 2018 study by researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Columbia University, the Indian Institute of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins University.

The study found that since the advent of the Green Revolution in 1960s, the Indian government has been promoting more high-yielding but low-nutrient varieties of wheat and rice that also emit more greenhouse gases, as we said earlier. This shift came at the cost of more nutritious indigenous varieties of cereals with lower carbon footprints. Emission reductions can thus be achieved by moving away from rice to wheat, maize, bajra and ragi; and from beef and eggs to chicken and legumes, the study said.

“Rich and upper-middle classes should replace exotic, imported and energy-intensive food items with more climate-friendly crops like millets,” said Kelkar. “Reducing food wastage and purchasing food suited to our climate, soil and water would help reduce the adverse impact of our consumption habits on our natural resources.”

Limitations of the study

India’s large informal economy does not allow the building of a comprehensive dataset on consumption and carbon emissions, experts pointed out.

“Only things which flow through the formal systems can be captured in data,” said Soumyajit Bhar, a doctoral scholar at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment and instructor at, a global climate school. “This is why it is difficult to account for the carbon footprint of fuelwood or biomass use because that’s mostly informally acquired and used.”

“Despite the limitations, the study is a close enough proxy for the real picture,” said Kelkar. “It captures the right trends and hence can be relied upon. It also shows that compared to developed countries, personal consumption expenditure on food, energy and transport in India is very low.”

However, just looking at carbon may be misleading especially in the Indian context, said Bhar. “For instance, while the use of electricity for pumping water to irrigate fields gets accounted for as emissions, how that pumping impacts the groundwater availability does not,” he said. “For that, we need to have a water footprint. In measuring emissions and global warming, we should not lose [sight of] the issue of local resource scarcity which impacts the most vulnerable.”

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.