Inequality and climate change
Inequality profoundly matters in our efforts to tackle climate change and prevent runaway global warming. Risks to climate change policies are inherent in the coalition’s unfair and regressive cuts programme – like Winter Fuel Payments – squeezing the poor while effectively allowing the rich to continue to produce much higher levels of emissions. The Spirit Level warns that “Governments may be unable to make big enough cuts in carbon emissions without also reducing inequality.”
In the UK, we consume on average around 8.4 tonnes of CO2 per head of population (2007), with wide and distinctly wealth-related variations between local authorities. Comparing local authority CO2 figures for 2007 with their indices of deprivation shows some strong associations:
- The lowest per capita CO2 emissions are recorded in inner London boroughs such as Hackney (4.2 tonnes per head) and Islington (6.2), or in cities such as Liverpool (6.5) and Manchester (6.9).
- Some of the highest rates are in the least deprived areas, such as South Cambridgeshire at 13.1 tonnes per head, Uttlesford (12.4) and South Northants (11.8).
In The Spirit Level , co-authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett provide international evidence that carbon emissions per head in rich countries are between two and five times higher than the world average. At the extremes, the US emits over 20 tonnes of CO2 person, which is roughly 200 times the rate in a developing country such as Tanzania, with emissions of one-tenth of a tonne per head.
But further economic growth in the developed world no longer necessarily improves health or wellbeing. Sure, Wilkinson and Pickett show a strong relationship between life expectancy and national income per person. But “some countries achieve life expectancies close to 80 years at a fraction of the CO2 emissions common in the richest countries.” Good health can be obtained at the minimum environmental costs – in countries as different as Sweden, Chile, Cuba, Jamaica or France. Clearly, we need to reduce emissions far below current levels.
The UK’s Climate Change Act 2008 introduced a legally binding target to cut our CO2 emissions by 80% below 1990 levels in 2050. We are working towards this target in a series of five-year “carbon budgets”.
But cutting CO2 comes at a price, in both public investment and the price domestic and industrial consumers pay for climate change policies. Last December, the Committee on Climate Change looked at the impact of meeting the proposed CO2 budgets on fuel poverty. By 2017 the number of fuel poor households would rise by up to 1.3 million households, and by nearly two million in 2022. According to Ofgem, in 2008, the average domestic consumer paid £33 a year for the price of CO2 in their energy bills.
We are all faced with the price of carbon emissions in everyday expenditure on gas, electricity, water supply (with its embedded energy costs) transport and many of the goods and services we buy. The Government has committed to legislation on a minimum price of carbon, to stimulate investment in energy saving technology. Yet over 40% of DECC’s £85m cuts are in low carbon technology projects, with offshore wind projects a major loser.
Wilkinson and Pickett argue that: “If policies to cut emissions are to gain public acceptance, they must first be seen to be applied fairly. The richer you are, the more you spend, the more you are likely to contribute to global warming. The carbon emissions caused by the consumption of a rich person may be ten times as high as the consumption of a poorer person in the same society. If the rich are the worst offenders, then fair remedies must surely affect them most. Policies that squeezed the poor while allowing the rich to continue to produce much higher levels of emissions would be unlikely to gain public support.”
As Richard pointed out, leaks about cuts to Winter Fuel Payments and Child Benefit would therefore represent a continuation of a policy trend towards widening inequality that is already established. The Budget froze Child Benefit for three years and the re-testing of Disability Living Allowance claims is supposed to cut back the number of people receiving the benefit by one fifth. How will impoverished consumers pay for home insulation, electric cars or energy from costly renewable sources?