climate change equality wealth

Carbon taxes and climate inequality

The climate crisis is a matter of justice on many different levels. Among them is the fact that the damage is mainly caused by the richest, though it is the poorest that are most exposed to the harm. This is true internationally and within countries too.

Here in Britain, the richest have vastly larger climate footprints. In a recent report by the think tank Autonomy, they looked at 20 years of carbon emissions by income group. The top 1% have a much greater impact:

It would take 26 years for someone in the lowest income decile to emit the carbon that the richest emit in a single year. (Much of that is from flying, which is why we need a frequent flyer levy, something there is broad political support for.)

As a matter of fairness, climate policy ought to target the high consumption of the rich first – for example through a carbon tax. Autonomy have been modeling possibilities for a such a tax. They suggest that if a carbon tax had been introduced 20 years ago, it would so far have raised £126 billion from the top 1% of emitters. That would be enough to retrofit 8 million homes, starting with those on the lowest incomes. Or it could have paid for renewable energy, reducing the nation’s dependency on gas and the price shocks that come with it.

Since no such tax was in place, say Autonomy, “the richest 1% have been free to ‘dump’ disproportionately large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere for little to no cost, creating a burden now shouldered by the rest of the population.”

This is a missed opportunity of course, but by sketching it out, Autonomy make the case for bringing in a carbon tax on the 1% now instead. The sooner the better, as “every year in which the excessive carbon impacts of the wealthiest 1% continue unabated is another lost year in revenue to fuel a green transition.”


  1. Jeremy, of some relevance to the Climate Justice agenda, I attach some discussion from Paul Dawson’s Climate Solutions Bookclub prior to out zoom meeting on 17/11/22

    Review of “The Future is Degrowth” by Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan

    “The Future is Degrowth “ is another very important book for the 21st Century. If “Regenesis” was a specialist book looking at world food production, analogous to an ENT consultant specialising in ear nose and throat problems; then Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan’s book is a generalist tome akin to a GP practising generalist medicine; it covers the whole academic field of degrowth thinking beautifully and so deserves a wide audience. I will not be lazy again and will write my own review this month!

    The book starts with a withering criticism of the hegemony of growth and why system change is needed in the Global North (to make space for the Global South) moving away from GDP towards redistribution, agricultural transformation, reduction of consumption and travel and debt cancellation. A Green New Deal with growth will not be sustainable, rather a degrowth society must come from below; it will be peaceful and will require overcoming capitalism and patriarchy with ecological, feminist, and decolonial approaches. Degrowth is not recession but a decoupling of well-being from the imperative to grow (a core feature of capitalism). Degrowth’s strength is its holistic view.

    Degrowth is a plan for a future society with a lower metabolism based around redistribution:
    i) Global ecological justice – first achieving global justice will require a planned contraction of activity to a globally equitable level and deprivileging those people who currently externalise the costs of their mode of living to others (ref debates between Jason Hickel and Branko Milanovic as to where this level can be politically / acceptably drawn)
    ii) systemic change beyond growth and capitalism
    iii) transformation must not unequally fall on the shoulders of the poor
    The authors’ refer to Erik O Wright and desirability, viability and achievability.

    Degrowth stands for a new post capitalist economy with the commons, as Elinor Ostrom’s basic idea to manage shared resources outside of markets; a solidarity economy with cooperation instead of competition, purpose before profit; and concepts of economic democracy (collective ownership and workplace decision making, reparations). Building on modern monetary theory it allows the abandoning of subsidies for harmful industries, taxing extreme wealth, prioritisation of reproductive/caring labour and leisure activities. Further research needs to be carried out into the question of financial restructuring / funding of transitions and into the democratizing of politics – democratic confederalism (citizens’ assemblies) , subsidiarity and a world parliament.

    Degrowth research points to (in no particular order of importance)
    ecological tax reform
    reduction in working hours
    unconditional global basic income
    universal basic services
    open borders

    The section on convivial and democratic technology was interesting covering connectedness, accessibility, adaptability, bio-interaction and appropriateness. Embracing automation includes equalisation of wages (including subsistence and voluntary), reduction in working hours for all, and phasing out unnecessary/destructive work.

    Democratising social metabolism means “public abundance, private sufficiency”, decreasing material throughput, phasing out dirty industries and the democratic setting of limits on consumption politically deliberated at regional, national and global levels. It means gradual
    replacement of income taxes with wealth/resource taxes to incentivise just transitions, common ownership and early capital investment in circular economies.

    International solidarity with degrowth means no longer accepting imperial modes of living externalizing the costs to others. All structural adjustment programmes (IMF and World Bank) must be replaced with constructive programmes of reparations (Loss and Damage agenda), because global ecological justice is central to the degrowth. Degrowth policies will actually lead to greater global justice through a sharing resources, knowledge, technology, and cooperation as well as through preferential trade arrangements and reparations (“design global, produce local”).

    Transformation from neoliberal capitalism is now essential on a dying planet. This should be top-down and bottom up ie
    (a) Degrowth top down policies – national or global government/world parliament
    (i) Global basic income
    (ii) shorter working days
    (iii) open borders
    (b) nowtopias – local projects from below, bottom up
    The book outlines different strategies to make degrowth real. Interstitial strategies scaling up already existing alternative institutions like cooperatives. Symbiotic strategies by setting up forms of cooperation between different social forces done through traditional political systems. And ruptural strategies via mass movements through revolutionary confrontation which eventually radically democratises and appropriates the state at all levels. Degrowth interstitial nowtopias are already being implemented on a small scale today, voluntarily limiting consumption eg transition towns, Zapatistas are real laboratories to structural change and a counter-hegemony. Non-reformist reforms(symbiotic strategies from above) involve a gradual change of laws, norms, and institutions. The most important proposals include reduction of working hours, radical policies of redistribution, universal basic services, ecological tax reform or income maximums via a revolutionary realpolitik. These political changes face structural limits: lack of resources, land and property rights, competitive conditions that reward exploitation, lack of time and inequality in societies. People need to head space and support to get involved in political discussions about which areas of society should grow and which should be phased out to create a radical redistribution of wealth. Non reformist degrowth policies strengthen social justice, democracy and self-determination and a global green new deal without growth involves public investment for energy transition, sensible industrial policies, socialisation of energy sector and expansion of welfare.

    Capitalist growth societies have a consensus which is primarily established in civil society and the media – the idea that growth is desirable, necessary and essentially infinite is currently all persuasive. But common sense is embedded in people’s everyday experience, and closely related to the spread of nowtopias which will drive social movements important in helping to politicize people who may have been less active in the past. The book is sure that we do need organise majorities willing to work towards cooperative societies so that non-reformist reforms can be voted for; and they will be if people experience radical abundance (for example, the Preston model in the UK). Green Parties at national level will propose aspirational desirable policies aimed at undoing the imperial mode of living, for example, normalising the “staycation” ahead of aviation. The necessity of direct action is hinted at, although not spelt out as directly as by the eco-Leninist Andreas Malm in “How to blow up a pipeline”.

    Building on Jason Hickel’s book “Less is More” intersectionality and alliances amongst different movements are seen as important. None are listed but Extinction Rebellion, Democracy Without Borders, Democracy International, The Sunrise Movement, Fridays for the Future and the International Labour Organisation spring to mind. These movements must have their own sources of power – democratic structures, citizens’ assemblies, councils, and confederations to enable them to deliberate collectively.

    In summary, the combination interplay of interstitial and other strategies, implementing non-reformist reforms and building counter-hegemony is the proposal for the degrowth society. Our current imperial mode of living is a world of eco-apartheid. Downscaling will happen whether we want it or not; reference the current cost of living crisis. If degrowth were implemented in a single country it would likely lead to capital flight, strikes and geopolitical tensions. Moments of crisis are precisely also moments when the losses of the rich tend to be socialised and shifted to the poor; note currently, populism’s aggressive defence of fossil fuel dependent imperial modes of living; but a counter-hegemony can become very powerful when the unfairness and irrationality of the economic system crystallises in peoples’ minds. During the pandemic lockdown, something like degrowth was implemented quickly in many countries – furloughing workers, protecting livelihoods, grounding planes, investing in care, intervening directly in production processes – all using Modern Monetary Theory and leading to reductions in emissions and material throughput.

    The book concludes by exploring some gaps in the degrowth literature. Regarding class and race, there is the issue of decolonisation and who owns land and how to promote world abundance without exclusion. Regarding geopolitics and imperialism, it is recognised that the power of the global military-industrial complex is often not confronted in degrowth literature. China complicates the degrowth global agenda trying to edge towards a world parliament to demand demilitarization, a global just trade system with monetary order and open borders. Regarding information technology, new, open source, cooperatively owned platforms for peer-to-peer movements need more development and better analysis of fairer working for those in rare earth and lithium mining will be essential. And regarding democratic planning; the management of absolute caps in resource use and emissions needs more thought and new metrics such as Jason Hickel’s Sustainable Development Index are required to monitor progress in phasing out dirty sectors and championing universal access to essential goods.

    “Degrowth aims to achieve global ecological justice by fundamentally restructuring and radically reducing the energy and material throughput in the Global North through policies, institutions, and everyday norms that promote social justice, self-determination, and a good life for all without being structurally dependent on social dynamics of expansion, acceleration and accumulation.” P285

    I thoroughly recommend this book as a template for climate solutions and a more equal fairer world.

    Mark Dick

    Prof Allwood is really worth a listen … he is actually talking about degrowth without explicitly mentioning it
    Paul Brown
    17 days ago
    Author, Notes from a Dead Planet
    Thanks for the excellent review, much better than the original (at least as far as I’ve read so far).

    Caroline Jessel
    19 hours ago
    Chair of South East Nature Partnership
    Very helpful review. Thanks Mark. I find it rather hard work so far!

    Andrew John DiLiddo, Jr
    15 hours ago
    Scientist, Naturalist, Writer, Explorer
    This book is a textbook. This is another 3-4 month read/study to digest. Paul Brown what drives me nuts are authors who use acronyms and blithely assume that all readers know what the acronym means: page 42 OECD

    Some Other Notes

    Terminology). Mark Dick uses the author’s verbiage “social metabolism”. I am a cell biologist. Individual Organisms have metabolism, not populations of organisms. I am glad you understand this term Mark because I sure don’t. The definition provided is very weak and vague. Then, it transitions to “decoupling” another vague concept built on a prior vague term.

    I have concerns relative to the international connotational and semantics of the terminology in this book. This is ivory tower stuff.

    I would love to have the authors have a conversation in America with our working class with no college education. Can they make this stuff understandable to the masses? I can’t even explain it to myself but I hope to soon.

    From working in corporate boardrooms in America, I can assure you the term “Degrowth” is not well received. Effectively, corporations rule America.

    Every 3 months corporations must report an (unsustainable) hegemonic growth in profit. This is becoming more and more impossible for corporations when they report out to their shareholders in quarterly reports given the post pandemic increase in energy costs with well past due increases in wages and concomitant increasing labor costs squeezing profit margins. So, consumer product prices are increased to try to recover the profit margin and the inflationary spiral is off to the races.

    Corporate governance, and hegemonic mandatory quarterly growth has been a
    cancer on our country for decades and Wall Street is an incompetent physician to heal this disease. I don’t see this titanic structure changing or turning on a dime any time soon.

    The Iceberg Model graphic on page 136 is a worthy jumping off point for discussion. Most people understand the underwater items charted.

    When this model is overlaid to all businesses, small, medium, or large – the underwater items are totally ignored by businesses. The business ignores the fact that Mary can come into work because her husband Joe is at home with the kids. When Mary comes home, then Joe goes out to work the night shift. Childcare is one of those iceberg model entries below the water line.

    Businesses complain about being taxed, but, these very businesses rely on utilities, roads, infrastructure, telecommunications, banking and monetary systems etc etc. Businesses don’t see that A) they benefit from these common goods and B) don’t feel any responsibility for paying their fair share and C) transferring their costs of doing business to consumers, customers and other entities to increase profit is an every day exercise.

    One glaring example is a community, social metabolism, that did not want to financially support a fire department by paying taxes for its operations. So, the community’s solution was to commodify (decouple) fire protection and owners of homes and businesses could pay a fee for fire protection. Decoupling reduced property taxes for those who vowed they needed no fire protection service.

    The inevitable happened. A family in a modest home had a fire and reflexively called the fire department for assistance. They had not subscribed to fire protection by paying a calibrated property tax to include fire protection. So, they had the experience of standing in the street watching their home burn to the ground.

    I point this out to illustrate the level of understanding of economic matters by the everyday people. Explaining the terminology and the concepts in this book to this audience and advocating for change is a monumental challenge.

    Andrew, I apologise for the use of the term social metabolism – it is not particularly helpful. But how societies function in periods of bottom up and top down change are important. I feel the key issue about degrowth is that it is currently the only hopeful “show in town”. Feudalism, mercantilism, communism, socialism and capitalism have all been tried and the whole world is now rapidly heading towards climate and ecological disaster.

    Degrowth is viewed perhaps slightly differently from a European perspective because many nations have more robust welfarism. Your house fire example is less likely here as no one would dream of opting out of fire department protection. But that does not mean that many in the general population have enough “head-space” to compute the real benefits of George Monbiot’s “public luxury, private sufficiency” agenda which underpins degrowth ideas.

    Weak “democracy” everywhere is against us! My friend Neil has been debating with me about the true wealth distribution in the Global North. If the top 10% hold virtually all the wealth, then the other 90% have virtually nothing saved for a rainy day and some are even currently visiting food banks. Some of 10% might be expected to vote for the status quo but surely they should be out-voted by the 90% clammering for redistribution. If this has not and is not happening anywhere, are current democracies (at all levels) not fit for purpose?

    To take the UK as an example again, in the House of Commons there may be only a handful of elected members who do not believe in economic growth, growth and more growth to run the nation – I know of only ONE MP for certain who believes in degrowth. How I would love to sit all the others down one at a time and quote to them QUB Professor John Barry’s lovely telling phrase “The economy is a fully owned subsidiary of the environment”.
    Mark Dick

  2. We need volunteers to come to the U.S. and lecture at elite prep schools where values are not being taught. I spent time having a coffee with a lovely man who was my parents’ godchild and a friend from childhood. This is in the U.S. We could have an enjoyable conversation about life, work, the city, you name it, but when it came to being open to liberal financial views, this man had to lower his voice to speak the word, “progressive,” as in not a neo-conservative. Well intentioned people are being swept into a tide of consumerist and fossil fuel and also war-machine profits, because they have never been education to consider what these things really are. Why not me? For one thing, I remember reading a book about the French revolution at the public library while in elementary school. It appalled me even then, that people were literally running over the poor with their carriage and thus getting away with murder, because of their disproportionate wealth. They paid the price, and though far from advocating revolution, if the rich persist in their ignorant pursuit of corporate gains, they (or the next generation) will meet the same fate eventually. Tiresome, to watch history repeat itself!

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