Climate crisis? We can’t solve it without tackling inequality too (Richard Dyer)

Richard Dyer (FoE)Richard Dyer is a campaigner in the Economics and Resources Programme, Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is his response to the working paper: The inequality of overconsumption: The ecological footprint of the richest (published in November 2015 by the Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University). Contact him on and on Twitter @RichardDyer63

Dario’s paper is an interesting perspective on a debate that has been raging for some time.  But the question he poses about what to do about the specific footprint of High Net-Worth Individuals (HNWIs) nestles within a bigger over-arching question: What happens to the overall ecological footprint of societies when action is taken to reduce inequality?

I welcome his honesty about the working paper’s shortcomings due to lack of available data. In addition I’m bound to say that I have significant concerns about the Ecological Footprint (EF) indicator. The weakness of single aggregated indicators (like EF) is that they are forced to make significant assumptions in converting quite different impacts, such as water use, carbon emissions or biodiversity loss, into a single unit.

That’s why Friends of the Earth has advocated for four separate but complementary footprint indicators: land, water, materials and carbon (pdf). These reflect the extent of land, water and materials consumed and carbon emitted, calculated on a consumption basis.

And let’s be clear, we do need to urgently and drastically cut our overall footprints:

  • The increase in the earth’s temperature is about to exceed 10C for the first time, and are rapidly using up our remaining ‘safe carbon budget’.

But while Dario’s paper provides strong arguments that the ‘super rich’ are more insulated from the environmental crisis facing us and less effected by the measures used to tackle it, I am not convinced that this means we need special HNWI focussed policy.

Their environmental footprints, although likely to be larger than average (per capita), are unlikely to be a substantial proportion of humanity’s overall impact – although that is not say that they shouldn’t be addressed.

It is also worth noting the enormous benefits that could be realised by releasing some of the wealth held by HNWIs to invest in transformative environmental solutions. For example: the wealth held by the world’s 782 people could provide half the world’s population with access to 100% renewable energy by 2030  (pdf).

But rather than tackling the environmental impact of HWNIs discretely, I suggest it is much more important for living within planetary boundaries that we tackle inequality itself. As I set out in our new briefing (pdf), this is because:

  • Support for strong environmental policies is often higher in more equal countries (pdf). This is likely to be because lower inequality is associated with more cohesive societies, which are more supportive of the changes we need to make towards one planet living.
  • Inequality is also a strong driver of consumption (pdf), through ‘status envy’, so addressing inequality should be a key step in reducing our overall consumption – providing other overarching measures are put in place. And let’s remember that status envy is just as evident amongst the richest and that it has grown significantly in recent years, fuelled by advertising aided by powerful modern communications and media.

I personally have some sympathy with Russell Brand’s proposal to ban private security as a key way to tackle inequality – however unrealistic it might be!  And this neatly highlights the root of the problem.  Inequality is more than a difference in economic means – it’s a difference in power.

This has many dimensions – it leads to both unequal opportunities and a lack of rights to influence decisions that affect us. These in turn lead to inequality in environmental outcomes. Basically the poor get dumped on while the rich are insulated (to an extent).

So what should be done? There are a number of policy areas to address:

  • Economic inequality – action on income and wealth disparities
  • Rights and participation –ensuring everyone has the rights and means to influence decisions that affect them
  • Measures of progress – supplement GDP with indicators that take account of our collective wellbeing, inequality and the environment
  • Controls on advertising and the promotion of healthy alternatives to consumption

Reducing inequality in its various forms is essential. But as well as dividing up the ‘pie’ more fairly, we need to ensure that the size of the pie itself fits within and respects planetary boundaries – in other words the ability of the bio capacity of the earth to sustain us. What does this mean in practice?

It means an international climate agreement that limits emissions to a ‘carbon budget’ likely to prevent catastrophic warming – about 1,100Gt CO2e. Friends of the Earth advocates that this budget is divided on the basis of historical responsibility (pdf). Transfer of finance from rich countries to poor (pdf) is also an essential element in this deal – tackling international dimensions of inequality which are also linked to the different historical responsibility for emissions already in the atmosphere.

It also means action to tackle resource depletion

So in essence – I would argue that addressing inequality in a way that respects planetary limits, is an essential component in tackling some of the underlying drivers of the environmental crisis we face.

And whilst the specific environmental impacts of the HNWIs probably aren’t a significant part of the problem on their own, the potential of positive, transformational environmental change through economic transfers from rich to poor at all levels is enormous.

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