climate change equality

Why climate action starts with the richest

When I talk about climate justice, I often compare carbon footprints across countries. My go-to comparison is per capita emissions in Madagascar (0.16 tonnes) and Australia (16 tonnes), two countries that I have a connection to. The annual climate impact of an average Australian is a hundred times larger than a Malagasy citizen. Or to put it another way, each average Australian does as much damage to the climate as a hundred Malagasy people do.

Globally, it is rich countries that need to act first on climate change.

This is also true locally. The richest in society tend to have much larger carbon footprints. As the World Inequality Report highlights, the wealthiest 10% have far more carbon emissions to their name.

It’s really important then that reducing emissions starts with the richest. It’s the best way to make sure that climate change action is fair, and it will be targeting surplus consumption. For example, a frequent flyer levy would be a fairer way to tackle aviation emissions, as it would affect those who fly most. People who fly once or twice a year would scarcely notice the difference, while wealthier air passengers who fly regularly would feel the pinch and hopefully reduce the number of flights they take.

In wealthier countries, even those on relatively low incomes still have have carbon footprints that are larger than a global fair share. So climate action doesn’t stop with the rich. It will take all of us, everywhere. But it can certainly start there.

4 comments

  1. I agree that climate action must start with the richest, but doing so must be part of broad policy that grips the whole fossil fuels problem and can reach zero emissions quite fast. Counting on effective international agreement at the COPs has proved to be fruitless, so policy that is effective and timely needs to arise at the national level, most importantly in rich, high-emissions nations. It particularly needs to rein in emissions of the rich in those nations (in all respects, importantly their flying but much more than that), so what is needed if fair-shares rationing – by quantity, not price. Building substitute clean energy and improving systemic energy efficiency can help shield those who aren’t rich from the effect of rationing.

    However, rationing is best used in reaction to scarcity rather than as a control mechanism over what is being rationed, and moreover certainty is needed in ratcheting down the use of fossil fuels and their emissions. Unless supply is constrained there will be leakage, one way or another. So, at the top of a rich nation’s climate policy should be a fast-falling cap on the domestic production and importation of fossil fuels, on a steady schedule to zero availability. The policy needs to include principles of the Green New Deal, to provide the substitute clean energy ( to the extent possible) and for an economically and socially safe transition. Finally, by including rationing by quantity in the policy fairness is ensured with everyone’s basic needs being met and what’s still available under the capping schedule being shared fairly. All together, this is a comprehensive way of putting the burden of change on a nation’s citizens according to their wealth, and ensuring that the nation’s emissions actually come to a quick end (say in 10 or 15 years).

    This policy framework is called Cap & Adapt (where “adapt” means economic & social adaptation to the cap), and I wrote about it here, in Solutions Journal: https://thesolutionsjournal.com/2020/09/01/cap-and-adapt-failsafe-policy-for-the-climate-emergency/

    It needs a movement and uprising to stand a chance of adoption, but even getting discussion of this going is of course difficult. Will anything less than this really get a grip on the problem fast enough? Hope you are willing and can help to spark discussion of Cap & Adapt.

    1. Thanks – that’s where the frequent flyer levy is useful as a specific response to aviation. It’s a relatively straightforward policy that has an element of rationing – one free flight a year – and then progressively higher levies for additional flights. That doesn’t price out those who fly occasionally.

      Across the economy as a whole, that kind of approach might look more like the Cap and Adapt strategy you suggest.

  2. Someone should actually do the math to determine what per cent of total flights are by frequent flyers snd how much by those who only twice a year. First define how many flights make a frequent flyer. Two flights a month? Four a month? Those figures are available somewhere. The additional flights by frequent flyers may turn out to be insignificant. Or it may be.

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