Inequality: the root cause of global warming

2nd February 2023


Disparity of distribution or opportunity is the root cause of global warming, says Guilherme Azevedo, and key to addressing climate injustice


COP27 left many observers with little hope that we would manage to keep global warming to below 1.5°C. Despite good intentions and arduous work, global carbon emissions continue to rise. Year after year, national representatives attend the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s COP meetings, where they perform a dance that involves promises, failures to deliver, target revisions and finger-pointing.

Nations cluster together in blocs that are driven by common interests: poor and less industrialised nations take a stand against rich and more industrialised ones; the EU conducts climate negotiations as a group controlled by historic emitters that want to avoid the responsibility for past emissions; newly industrialised nations claim additional rights because they only started emitting CO2 relatively recently; and small island nations demand urgent action as they start disappearing beneath the sea. Each of these blocs relies on a well-established set of arguments to defend its interests; as a result, progress is slow and the planet is losing the battle.

A fair share

We are tackling global warming the wrong way by insisting on looking at the planet as a collection of nations. Global warming is caused by our collective human activity and we should start to look at humankind as a single population. We are all in the same boat, but some onboard are creating more emissions than others. I was recently a part of a research project, ‘Rebalancing society: Learning from the experience of Latin American progressive leaders’, and interviews with 25 experts revealed that they consider inequality the root of all the major problems we face today; it was cited 20 times more often than poverty. We are perfectly able to produce enough wealth, food and opportunities for everyone, but are very bad at distributing them.

Inequality is often perceived as being socioeconomic, but it also relates to unequal access to individual freedoms, opportunities and political rights. Climate justice – the fair sharing of the benefits and burdens of climate change – cannot be understood in isolation and must take historic inequalities into consideration. We need to factor in inequality when envisaging ways to fight global warming. The anthropogenic destruction of nature is caused by the overexploitation of natural resources, generating pollution – notably greenhouse gas emissions. There is also inequality in terms of who benefits from these destructive activities and who carries the heaviest burdens of their consequences.

Unequal burdens

Global wealth distribution is extremely unequal, and this is not improving. According to Oxfam, the 10 richest people in the world own more than the 3.1 billion poorest, while Credit Suisse has calculated that 47.8% of global wealth is owned by just 1.2% of the world’s population; conversely, 53.2% of the population owns just 1.1% of the wealth.

“Global wealth distribution is extremely unequal, and this is not improving”

Our personal carbon footprints are also unequal because our emissions are related to consumption. The World Inequality Report 2022 shows that the average annual carbon footprint per person in the poorest half of the world population is 1.6 tonnes, while that figure is 11.5 tonnes for the richest half. The richest 10% emit 31 tonnes each, and the richest 1% 110 tonnes (keeping in mind that the current sustainable level to limit global warming under 1.5 degrees is 1.1 tonnes per person and to keep it under 2 degrees is 3.5 tonnes). Objectively, this indicates that the richest citizens of the planet, independent of their nationalities, are responsible for a disproportionately high share of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Global warming is thus linked to a consumerism-based model of development that perpetuates various forms of inequality. We need to replace this model with less unequal and more sustainable possibilities. However, as life depends on reduced carbon emissions, we need to focus on emission reductions among individuals whose consumption is disproportionate. The moral principles of climate justice support this effort, and in more pragmatic terms it will be more effective to reduce the carbon footprint of individuals who emit more than 30 tonnes per year than the carbon footprint of those who emit less than two tonnes.

References:

ESSD - Global Carbon Budget 2022 (copernicus.org)

Consensus revisited: quantifying scientific agreement on climate change and climate expertise among Earth scientists 10 years later - IOPscience

Rebalancing society: Learning from the experience of Latin American progressive leaders - ScienceDirect

Inequality Kills: The unparalleled action needed to combat unprecedented inequality in the wake of COVID-19 (openrepository.com)

https://www.credit-suisse.com/about-us/en/reports-research/global-wealth-report.html

The World InequalityReport 2022 presents the most up-to-date & complete data on inequality worldwide

Guilherme Azevedo is an assistant professor in the Department of Organization Studies and Ethics at Audencia Business School, Nantes, France

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