10% of the world’s population are responsible for about half of all greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom half of the world contributes just 12% of all emissions. If we are to meet our target of staying below 1.5 degrees, of which we are currently no where near on course to do, this emission inequality must be solved.
Whilst the argument stands that we should all aim to reduce our emissions, a much stronger argument stands that the rich need to lead the charge and ultimately sacrifice the most:
- Firstly, the rich have much more ease and ability in reducing their emissions and transferring to a greener style of living due to their financial comfort. The middle and lower classes on the other hand have much less capacity to decarbonise their consumption. This is because, as it currently stands, living a ‘greener’ life is more expensive than maintaining the emission heavy lifestyle that we are used to. Whilst this lifestyle is certain to become the cheapest out of the two due to scarcity and innovation, this change will likely take time, time we do not have in this battle against climate change.
- Secondly, as the aforementioned statistic makes evident, the rich are most accountable for our worsening climate situation, and therefore should see the moral reasons behind cleaning up the mess which they have mainly created.
- Thirdly, and arguably most importantly, a recent study has exposed that the poorest half of the population in the US and most European countries have already reached their emission targets in line with the 2030 emissions reduction target. Therefore, it is mainly up to the rich to pick up the rest of the slack.
It is clear that regulation needs to be put in place to force the rich to concede a large chunk of their emission-heavy lifestyle. The problem is that so far this has not been done very well: In 2018, France raised their very regressive carbon tax in an attempt to reduce emissions, yet this ultimately adversely affected low-income households particularly hard, without changing the consumption and spending patterns of those on higher incomes. This is because, as aforementioned, those on lower incomes have less capacity to make progressive changes in their lifestyles, and therefore this tax increase simply saw many families maintain their way of life whilst suffering the tax, having no other option but to drive to work, for example. On the other hand, the aviation fuel used by the rich to fly from Paris to the French Riviera was exempted from the tax change. These regressive policies are not only limited to France, however.
Another point to take into account is the action, or rather inaction, of many rich countries as a whole. In the Paris agreement, developed countries pledged to provide at least $100 billion in climate aid finance to less developed countries per year by 2020. This target was never met, and the OECD’s estimate for climate aid in 2017-18, just 2 years before the deadline was up, was a mere $22.5 billion at most. Furthermore, the NDC’s of most developed countries were no where near sufficient to meet the Paris agreement’s conditions, and held many loopholes which made it seem as if these countries were actually making rapid change. Whilst NDC’s have been updated at the recent COP26 summit, and new agreements which have been made by developed countries seem a lot more sufficient, there is still a lot of unrest about what they have conceded. The US and China, both of which were very reluctant to agree to any change at COP26 initially despite being the two largest emitters by far, did in fact make a very substantial agreement to meet the Paris agreement’s targets. However, many argue that this agreement won’t actually amount to anything significant, which is worrying considering the US is not only the largest greenhouse gas emitter, but also has the largest upper class in the world. Considering the USA’s history, leaving the Paris Agreement entirely in 2019, it would be no surprise for climate action to once again be underwhelming, although Biden holds much more progressive views on topics such as climate change than Trump.
Many argue therefore that there is a desperate need for progressive taxes in order to not only reduce global emissions, but also aid the much needed redistribution of income and wealth. A progressive tax on wealth with a pollution top-up would accelerate the shift out of fossil fuels by making access to capital more expensive for the fossil fuel industries. It would also generate potentially large revenues for governments that they could invest in green industries and innovation. Such taxes would be politically easier to pass than a standard carbon tax, since they target a fraction of the population, not the majority.