Climate inequality is a glaring reality: No regressive burdens please | Mint

Climate inequality is a glaring reality: No regressive burdens please

Disadvantaged groups are more exposed to climate effects and less able to recover from damages.
Disadvantaged groups are more exposed to climate effects and less able to recover from damages.


  • The rich caused the crisis whose brunt will be borne by the poor. The ‘polluter pays’ principle ought to guide policies for climate action.

Populist politicians are turning the climate crisis into a wedge issue, sacrificing the environment to the culture wars. If there’s one pervasive problem that’s allowed them to do that, it’s inequality. The unequal dynamic that may first come to mind is international relations between developed and developing nations. As the UN’s CoP-28 climate summit draws near, discussions have grown urgent on how to distribute finances from wealthy countries, which have been responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions, to vulnerable nations that are bearing the brunt of their impact.

Although those negotiations will be vital for a just transition to a decarbonized global economy, socioeconomic inequalities within borders should receive equal attention. A recent report from Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute explored the idea of carbon inequality, and came up with the figure that the richest 1% of the global population pollutes just as much as the poorest 66%. It also found that most of the inequality in emissions is now due to differences within countries rather than between them.

Oxfam’s figures have been criticized for relying on imperfect assumptions: The authors allocate national consumption emissions to individuals within each country based on a functional relationship between income and emissions, rather than actual consumption. But whether or not the exact numbers are right, the basic premise is backed by multiple studies that have linked higher expenditure (which tends to increase with income) with more direct emissions (such as more flights and bigger cars) and indirect emissions (those embedded in goods). Unless a billionaire is lives self-sufficiently in an off-grid hut and refuses to fly, you can bet she has a higher carbon footprint than people on the breadline. I’d argue it almost doesn’t matter what our relative footprints look like—though they do help make the argument that the very wealthy should pay their dues, which I believe they should—because a key problem is that climate change is regressive, affecting the poorest the most.

Disadvantaged groups are more exposed to climate effects and less able to recover from damages. Take flooding: Less well-off populations often live in areas more prone to it, in homes more susceptible to water damage, and may not have been able to afford insurance, leaving them to cover costs themselves. It’s not hard to see how this becomes a vicious cycle as extreme weather intensifies, ultimately widening the gap between the haves and have-nots even more.

Unfortunately, we’re also at an awkward point where climate policies are sometimes designed in a regressive way—meaning that costs for low-income earners represent a bigger chunk of their income than that of high-income earners—leaving openings for backlashes globally against climate action. If allowed to continue, another vicious cycle may commence in which mitigation stagnates, temperatures rise and extreme weather becomes more hazardous, pushing more into financial distress while the wealthy get by.

The most famous example to date, of course, is the 2018 gilets jaunes protests in France, which sprung up against a fuel-tax increase accused of disproportionately burdening rural working and middle-class households who have no choice but to drive, while exempting carbon-intensive companies. Backlashes against the Ultra Low Emission Zone expansion in London and gas boiler phase-out in Germany fit the same pattern. The upfront cost of heat pumps, energy-efficiency measures and electric vehicles do promise to come down; but they’re still out of reach for many.

It’s fair to be worried about disproportionate financial burdens, but it’s infuriating to see politicians—like UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak—using these concerns as excuses to delay or avoid action, doing nothing to solve the root issue, rather than redesigning policies to better aid those in need. It’s particularly exasperating as many measures could actually alleviate financial pressures on poorer households.

French economist Thomas Piketty suggested to The Guardian the use of a progressive carbon tax by which activities beyond an emissions allowance—such as frequent holiday flights, large houses or large vehicles—would be subject to a higher rate. Though the enforcement of such a measure might be difficult, there are other policies that could raise revenue and make it more expensive to pollute, such as frequent-flier levies and windfall taxes on oil and gas companies.

Taking from the polluter elite and giving to the poor will help speed climate action, improve countless lives and create a fairer, safer world. Such a policy seems like a no-brainer to me. ©bloomberg

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