Compliance with the Paris Agreement needs our emissions down to an equitable annual 0.7 tons CO2e per person; the way things are going, that task of reducing consumption levels has been assigned to those that already consume less.
Inequity in distribution of lifestyle-related emissions can be seen both between countries and within countries. Current average per-capita emissions from consumption in the USA are 10 times those in India (17.6 tons CO2e compared to 1.7 tons), according to the 2020 UNEP Emissions Gap Report, to which Hot or Cool contributed. The 1.5-degree lifestyles report shows that not only rich countries need to downsize; some developing countries also need to make cuts in order to meet targets in the Paris Agreement.
Japan and Finland, for example, need to reduce lifestyle carbon footprints by about 90% by 2050; Brazil, India, and China need reductions ranging from 20% to over 80%. These reductions need to be carried out by emerging economies while simultaneously getting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty – including by increasing their consumption. In addition, they are also dealing with droughts, tsunamis, etc. – some of them strengthened by impacts of climate change. The farmers protesting in India foreshadow the types of disruptions one can expect when the poor are feeling squeezed to feed the rich.
Globally, the emissions share of the top 10% of income earners is around 36–49%, while the lowest 50% is around 7–15%. The emissions of the top 1% are more than double those of the poorest 50%, according to UNEP.
A contraction and convergence approach would need the top 1% to reduce emissions from their lifestyles by at least a factor of 30 in order for the poorest 50% to increase by around three times their current levels on average. But this is not happening. Quite the opposite – the rich are continuing to pollute even more while those who have less are getting more ecologically sensitive. Oxfam’s recent report shows that EU emissions cuts since 1990 have been achieved mainly on the backs of lower- and middle-income EU citizens, while emissions of the richest 10% actually grew.
But this chasm in impacts between the rich and the poor does not only manifest between industrialised and industrialising countries. Even inside the so-called rich countries, poverty that used to hide underground in subway stations or only sneak out at night is now openly manifest. Those earning less are coming out to pay for the rich, even when some cannot buy their way out of poverty. Witness how millionaires got even richer during the COVID-19 pandemic while poverty deepened among the poor. At some point, 40 million Americans filed for bankruptcy while billionaires saw their wealth rise by half a trillion dollars. In developing countries a rich class is emerging with lifestyles similar to their western counterparts. In India, the richest 1% own 58% of the total wealth of the country.
In addition to international and within-country inequalities, we are now sowing seeds for intra-generational inequality. Already psychologists are warning of rising levels of climate anxiety among youth; a paper in Nature Climate Change highlights the tendency for suicide rates to increase as the climate gets warmer. It’s no wonder Generation Z, or at least those not from legacy-rich families is in full protest mode. The “Fridays For Future” movement is refusing to use polite language or accept the platitudes of older generations that are bent on using up as much capital as they can possibly dig out.
Rather than trying to fix them, our climate change policies, already falling short of the magnitude of the challenge, are also reinforcing issues caused by our present economic system. We need a hard look at our economy – the operating system of our contemporary society – and to reject it if we are to address the climate change problem in a way that does not entrench current perversions. There is no shortage of recommendations on changing taxation systems, infrastructure, business licenses to operate, labour laws, perverse subsidies, etc. The UN recently emphasized this in its report “Making Peace With Nature: A scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies” Short of fundamental changes that align new economic systems with climate justice perspectives, climate change solutions tied to the market are simply just burden-shifting mechanisms.
At this rate, we may yet manage to become an environmentally sustainable but morally bankrupt and psychologically damaged society.