Who makes up the polluting elite and what strategies can we use to address carbon inequality?
Who makes up the polluting elite and what is their significance?
According to Oxfam’s research, the top 1% of individuals produce the same amount of carbon emissions as the bottom 66%, largely due to their affluent lifestyles which involve extensive air travel, driving large vehicles, owning multiple homes, and consuming a rich diet.
According to economist Jason Hickel, it is necessary to consider the impact of the wealthy on our remaining carbon budget. Currently, millionaires are projected to use up 72% of the budget for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The excessive purchasing power of the elite must be limited. It is illogical to devote significant resources to enable the overconsumption of the ruling class during a climate crisis.
The issue extends beyond just the greenhouse gas emissions produced by these lifestyles, which are already significant. The wealthy individuals responsible for pollution have a disproportionate impact on the climate in multiple ways. As Hickel points out, while personal consumption emissions are noteworthy, it is the control over investible assets that truly matters. When we consider investments made in industries that contribute to pollution, we see that each billionaire is responsible for a million times more emissions than the average person in the bottom 90%. This raises the question of who is making decisions about investments and production in the global economy, particularly in regards to energy systems. Ultimately, the focus should be on holding these individuals accountable for their actions.
According to economist Mariana Mazzucato, who advises governments and works at UCL, the climate crisis and economic inequality are creating a “double jeopardy” for poorer individuals. This is based on a statement by Barbados’s prime minister, Mia Mottley. Mazzucato explains that those in wealthier countries in the northern hemisphere are mostly responsible for the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions that have accumulated in the atmosphere. However, they have also benefitted from using carbon, while poorer countries are now suffering the consequences and struggling to respond due to financial limitations. This is further exacerbating their poverty.
According to Mazzucato, double jeopardy refers to the unfair situation of being disadvantaged twice. She explains that low-income countries are currently spending more than double the amount on debt repayment compared to social assistance, 1.4 times more than healthcare, and a significant portion on climate adaptation. She questions how these countries can effectively address the challenges of climate change caused by developed countries without falling deeper into debt.
According to Farhana Sultana, a professor at Syracuse University and fellow at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, it is not feasible to have a privileged group that contributes to pollution and also maintain a sustainable climate. She, along with other economists from developing countries, sees the excessive emissions of wealthy individuals in developed countries as a form of colonialism. Sultana argues that the unequal distribution of carbon emissions is essentially a colonization of the Earth’s atmosphere by the elite capitalist class, who engage in excessive consumption and pollution, while the consequences of this “climate colonialism” disproportionately affect marginalized and vulnerable communities in developing nations.
The culture of rich people, and rich countries, built on use and discard cannot continue in a world of finite resources and planetary boundaries. “What the 1% do is overuse the earth’s resources through extraction, hyperconsumption, a discard culture that produces enormous amounts of waste and pollution – all these processes together create significant strains to planetary systems,” she says.
According to climate scientist Kevin Anderson, the wealthiest 1% of emitters not only have a significant impact on emissions, but also influence consumer behavior on a larger scale. Anderson believes that this group uses their immense power to shape social expectations and manipulate the dialogue surrounding climate change. This includes funding deceptive campaigns and promoting false solutions, such as the financialization of carbon and labeling any meaningful discussion on inequality and power as extreme. He also notes that the media, which is often owned or controlled by the 1%, plays a role in perpetuating this harmful narrative. As a result, society has been twisted into a destructive state by the influence of the 1%.
What measures can be taken to address carbon disparity?
The issue of inequality has been identified by economists as both a problem and a potential solution. Roman Krznaric, author of The Good Ancestor, states that this paradoxical situation could actually be seen as advantageous. If only a small portion of individuals are responsible for the problem, it may be simpler to address and remedy the issue by targeting them specifically.
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There are various policies that could be implemented to address the super-rich, such as prohibiting the use of private jets (which is supported by French economist Thomas Piketty), imposing high taxes on them, implementing wealth taxes, carbon taxes, consumption taxes, windfall taxes on the excessive profits of oil and gas companies, and imposing levies on frequent flyers.
These would raise revenue that could be redirected internationally towards assistance for poor countries, including the loss and damage fund for the rescue and rehabilitation of countries and communities stricken by climate disaster, and domestically within richer countries to help people on lower incomes gain access to low-carbon technology, such as heat pumps.
According to a number of economists, regulations will play a crucial role in transforming global energy systems, mandating minimum levels of efficiency, and prohibiting highly polluting practices.
According to Julia Steinberger from the University of Lausanne, it is crucial to include debt relief for impoverished nations and invest in effective and adequate low-carbon public services. This includes initiatives such as retrofitting housing and improving public transportation, as well as promoting access to healthy and affordable plant-based foods.
Hickel suggests decreasing production of non-essential items such as mansions, weapons, aviation, and fast fashion. He also proposes expanding public oversight to include the private sector. This would involve a greater portion of money creation and investment being under public control. Currently, under capitalism, investment is primarily driven by what is most profitable for capital. This results in a surplus of products like SUVs, aviation, fast fashion, and industrial meat, while necessary things like renewable energy and public transport receive inadequate investment. To address this issue, Hickel advocates for more democratic control over investment so that it can be directed towards socially and ecologically necessary endeavors.
The amount of money necessary to assist developing nations in dealing with the effects of climate change and transitioning to a low-carbon economy may seem daunting, with some estimates reaching over $2 trillion annually. However, Mazzucato argues that this should not be cause for alarm. She believes that there is already a significant amount of financial resources available, but they are not being directed towards the right causes. In addition to public funds, there is also a potential for private investors to redirect their investments away from high-carbon industries, and potential revenue from new levies.
Vera Songwe, a Cameroonian economist who previously led the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa and is currently working at the Brookings Institution in the United States, supports implementing “a genuine and transparent cost for carbon” as a means to address the gap in carbon emissions. By considering emissions and punishing high-carbon practices, this approach could provide incentives for developing countries with significant carbon sinks, such as forests, peatlands, and coastal swamps, to preserve these valuable landscapes.
“It is crucial to consider the contributions made by developing countries in this manner, and to acknowledge and incentivize positive actions,” she suggests. “We have the opportunity to address the climate crisis while also promoting development in impoverished nations. We can make conscious decisions about the type of economic growth we strive for.”
According to Jayati Ghosh, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, significant reductions in emissions from wealthy nations are necessary immediately. However, developing countries may require a larger share of the remaining carbon budget in order to continue growing. This will require a global response that goes beyond individual emission targets and includes penalties for excessive emissions from the wealthy. Additionally, controlling extreme wealth through taxation is crucial. Ghosh emphasizes that there is no longer time to make minor adjustments to economic policy.
Implementing small changes may provide temporary satisfaction, but they are not likely to make a significant impact. The only solution is to make radical changes to our economic systems and methods, which must include reducing inequality. We can continue discussing this issue, but unfortunately, nature and the environment do not pay attention to our words, only our actions.
She states that meeting basic needs and maintaining a dignified life can be done with minimal carbon emissions by investing public funds, which could potentially be obtained through taxing the wealthy and large multinational companies.
What strategies can be implemented to decrease disparities among nations?
According to Oxfam’s research, inequalities in carbon footprint extend beyond the global divide between the north and south. In fact, the differences between the carbon footprint of wealthy and impoverished individuals within countries are now greater than those between countries.
According to Piketty, the author of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” climate policies need to be specifically designed to avoid placing a heavier financial burden on individuals with lower incomes. Otherwise, there is a high chance of a negative reaction, similar to the gilets jaunes demonstrations in France.
Rachel Cleetus, the policy director for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States, believes that it is important for richer countries like the US to also focus on addressing the losses and damages caused by the climate crisis within their own borders. She points out that communities of color, Indigenous peoples, and those with low incomes have been disproportionately affected by fossil fuel pollution and are now bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, despite having contributed less to its creation. Cleetus emphasizes that both the international and domestic aspects of this issue must be addressed with a focus on justice.
According to Adair Turner, co-chair of the Energy Transitions Commission thinktank, the growing disparities in developing nations make it impossible to consider all individuals as having the same interests. Even in poorer countries, there are wealthy individuals who have lifestyles that contribute to high levels of carbon emissions. Lord Turner explains that sometimes, wealthy individuals in countries like India and China may cite the average per capita carbon emissions for their country, but fail to acknowledge their own personal carbon footprint. He suggests shifting the focus from country comparisons to discussions of wealth inequality when it comes to addressing emissions.
According to Steinberger, this can also pose a problem at UN climate summits. She points out that a number of national negotiators appear to prioritize the interests of the wealthy minority over the majority within their own countries.
What strategies can be implemented to decrease disparities between different age groups?
Economists also argue that climate disparities are present not only among nations and areas, but also within social and economic groups, as well as across generations. For instance, information provided to the Guardian reveals that in the UK, the carbon footprints of baby boomers are the largest and increasing, surpassing those of Generation X and millennials.
What implications will our children face as we leave them with a world that has depleted its carbon budget?
Peter Newell from Sussex University believes that governments have a responsibility to prioritize the well-being of the general public. When a small portion of the world’s population exceeds their fair share of carbon budgets, they are essentially shifting the burden of responsibility onto others in their society and in different countries, or leaving future generations to bear the costs. Therefore, it is imperative for governments to ensure that remaining carbon budgets are distributed fairly.
According to Mohamed Adow, creator of Power Shift Africa, developing nations have the opportunity to steer clear of the mistakes made by industrialized countries in pursuing high-carbon growth. He believes that renewable energy offers a solution for fueling economic progress, citing Kenya as an example with its 92% reliance on renewable electricity and successful economic status within Africa.
He advises against developing nations attempting to close the economic gap by utilizing their fossil fuel resources. He highlights the example of Mozambique, where foreign corporations have constructed a $20 billion offshore natural gas field and an onshore LNG facility, yet 70% of the population lacks access to electricity. He states, “The gas is not benefiting the local population.”
Is capitalism the issue?
Some modern thinkers view the unequal distribution of carbon as a result of a larger issue: capitalism. Daniela Gabor, an economics professor at the University of the West of England, believes that significant government intervention is needed to restructure economic activity in order to achieve a fair transition. Imposing taxes on carbon wealth is not enough to bring about this transformation.
Hickel desires democratic oversight of investment and production, as profit-driven markets often prioritize the wrong objectives. He believes that when individuals have a say in production, they prioritize the wellbeing of humans and ecological sustainability.
An increasing number of economists advocate for governments to pursue “degrowth” in order to avoid overconsumption caused by economic growth. However, Mazzucato disagrees with this approach, stating that it does not make sense as it does not address the main issue facing most of the world – lack of growth and employment. Instead, she believes that a different approach to growth is needed.
The emission of greenhouse gases needs to be reduced by 50% in the next ten years and completely eliminated within the next 25 years in order to prevent the severe consequences of climate change. However, emissions are continuing to reach unprecedented levels. For this reason, certain climate specialists argue that we cannot delay implementing significant changes to our political and economic structures in order to create a more equitable society. Instead, we must take action with the resources and means currently available to us.
Chief economist at the World Bank, Nicholas Stern, stated before writing his influential report on the economics of climate change in 2006 that addressing inequality is crucial for a variety of reasons such as health, education, development, and environmental issues including emissions. However, waiting for complete equality before taking action to reduce emissions is a misunderstanding of the situation and could lead to missed opportunities. It is not feasible to wait for global inequality to be completely eradicated before making the transition to net zero emissions, as time is of the essence.
According to Gernot Wagner, a professor at Columbia Business School, we should be cautious of being too extreme in our actions. While it may be tempting to rebel against authority, our main focus should be on reducing carbon emissions. In some cases, these two goals align, but often they do not. While addressing wealth inequality is important for many reasons, we cannot delay taking action on climate change in hopes of solving all of society’s problems.
According to Avinash Persaud, who advises the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, disregarding inequality while attempting to address the climate crisis is not a viable solution. The only effective solutions are those that acknowledge the contributions of both individuals and countries responsible for creating the issue.