If we ever needed a reminder that climate justice is social justice, here it is in the form of research from Oxfam and the Institute for European Environmental Policy. It provides the stark, but perhaps unsurprising news, that the richest 1% of people globally are responsible for an increasingly large proportion of global climate-changing emissions - predicted to reach 16% by 2030 and a staggering 30 times the per-person levels compatible with capping global warming to 1.5⁰C. The research suggests that, excluding the richest 10% of people, the remaining 90% are set to be within touching distance of the global totals for a pathway to 1.5⁰C (and the poorest 50% of people worldwide continue to be responsible for significantly less than their 'fair share' of emissions).
It would be easy to despair in the face of such research, at least at a personal level - what is the point of my turning off the lights as I leave a room when the wealthiest 1% are off into space? But it demonstrates some key principles which need to guide us, at individual, corporate and sector levels, when considering what action to take:
- while taking personal action to reduce our individual carbon and environmental footprint is entirely admirable and to be encouraged, we should not be distracted from the bigger picture.
- tackling climate change means addressing social inequalities, and those inequalities need to be looked at through a climate lens: how can we reduce the impact of the wealthiest on the planet while improving the quality of life of the poorest?
- our focus must be on maximising the results from decarbonisation projects in each of the various sectors that have the biggest contribution to emissions - in the UK these are transport, energy supplies, businesses and homes. If we can focus on cleaner and reduced travel, clean energy sources, achieving net zero supply chains in businesses, and low-carbon homes, a significant impact can be achieved - both on carbon emissions and on social inequalities.
I confess I am finding it difficult to find reasons to be cheerful during COP26, when much of the focus is on the bleak picture of a worst-case scenario which feels an increasingly likely outcome. But in this case, action on all fronts is the only remedy for a lack of cheer.
The world’s richest 1% are set to have per capita consumption emissions in 2030 that are still 30 times higher than the global per capita level compatible with the 1.5⁰C goal of the Paris Agreement, while the footprints of the poorest half of the world population are set to remain several times below that level. By 2030, the richest 1% are on course for an even greater share of total global emissions than when the Paris Agreement was signed. Tackling extreme inequality and targeting the excessive emissions linked to the consumption and investments of the world’s richest people is vital to keeping the 1.5⁰C Paris goal alive.