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Fintan O’Toole: Well-off Irish people do the most climate damage and must pay the price

Costs of carbon reduction should not be ‘shared’ equally but must be borne mainly by the rich

What’s hot and what’s not? The rich and the poor. While messages about climate change are aimed at all of us, it is people with money who are burning down the house. Which is why we can’t be serious about zero carbon if we’re not also serious about tackling inequality – not just between countries but within them.

It’s obvious enough that there is a great geographic injustice, in which the poor countries of the global south contribute least to climate change yet suffer its worst consequences.

Less obvious is the shocking reality that the number of people in the world who don’t even have access to electricity is actually rising. Last year, it rose by 20 million to 775 million, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. To state the obvious, these people are not the ones who are creating climate change.

But what tends to be avoided is the way social inequality within rich countries also maps onto carbon emissions.


Here’s a stark reality that is not often acknowledged in debates about the climate emergency: half of the populations of Europe and the United States are already fairly close to the target for carbon emissions we are all supposed to reach by 2030. The political and social problem is that it is the poorest and therefore least powerful half.

The average human currently emits about 6.5 tonnes of greenhouse gases every year. But that average masks a vast difference. The top 10 per cent of emitters are responsible for 30 tonnes each; the bottom 50 per cent for just 1.5 tonnes. And the top 1 per cent pump out 110 tonnes a year.

This gap has grown as the climate emergency has deepened. Thirty years ago, the top 1 per cent were producing 9.5 per cent of emissions. Now it’s 12 per cent.

In Ireland, based on 2015 data (the latest I can find), the richest half a million people emit about the same amount of greenhouse gases as the poorest 2.5 million. The top 1 per cent send 66 tonnes each into the atmosphere every year, while the bottom 50 per cent send just 5 tonnes.

The target we have to reach by 2030 is 2 tonnes each. So the rich in Ireland have to cut their emissions by 64 tonnes each and ordinary people by just 3 tonnes.

This means that we can’t merely say that the transition to zero carbon should be “just”. Even before it’s a question of justice or fairness, it’s a question of possibility: targets simply can’t be met if we don’t make the best-off people do most of the heavy lifting. Which means, in effect, greatly narrowing the gap between rich and poor.

And yet, very few Irish people seem to think of the climate emergency as being driven by the excessive consumption of rich people. Asked in one study (conducted by Brenda McNally for the Environmental Protection Agency), “What type of problem is climate change?”, just 11 per cent identified it as a problem of “overconsumption”.

Likewise, the Government’s Climate Action Plan essentially avoids the question of social class. It mentions inequality only briefly and then only in the context of the (laudable) aim that “the costs must be shared so that the impact is equitable and that existing inequalities are not exacerbated”.

But actually, the costs must not be “shared”. They must be borne primarily by the wealthiest people – not just for moral and political reasons but simply because it is the behaviour of the wealthy that has to change most radically.

If we use the necessary reduction in personal carbon footprints as a crude measure of change, the top 1 per cent in Ireland have to change by 97 per cent; ordinary people by 40 per cent. And this is not just about not “exacerbating” existing inequalities. It’s about radically reducing them.

The overwhelming evidence is that excessive wealth produces excessive consumption, which in turn produces excessive carbon emissions. People who burn through a lot of money set the world on fire.

Inequality, in other words, is now an existential question. The link between excess wealth and the climate crisis is so strong that it has to change the way we think about social and economic equality.

We’ve long known that inequality is terrible for human wellbeing. We know that, in the extreme forms we now have, it is incompatible with democracy.

But what we now know is that it is also incompatible with survival. There is no future for a civilisation that is currently devouring the planet’s resources 1.7 times faster than they can regenerate themselves.

But it’s not “civilisation” that is doing this. It is wealthy people. The more super-rich people there are, the more they consume, and the more they fantasise about being able to insulate themselves from the consequences of that consumption. “I spend therefore I am” is becoming a kind of planetary death cult in which hedonism kills, not those who indulge in it, but those who have least ability to do so.

None of this is to suggest that people on modest incomes don’t have to make big changes to the way they live. But it is to say that the current messaging about climate change makes too much use of fuzzy plural pronouns.

“Us” and “we” are nice and even necessary signifiers of the need for collective responses to a collective threat. But, even if we are all in this together, some of us are in it much deeper than others.

Climate is a class issue. There is little or no chance of tackling a crisis of overconsumption without deeply disturbing the overconsumers.

Or, to look at it more positively, the green revolution must of necessity be a historic opportunity not just to create new kinds of wealth but to share them equally. If we can’t go on generating growth by letting the best-off people consume more and more, we can generate it by diverting resources away from those who desire them for reasons of status and towards those who need them in order to lead dignified lives.

Equality has long been on the banners of the reds. It has to now be on the green ones too.

And it’s in the interests even of the rich. They may fantasise about escaping climate change by flying to Mars or buying up New Zealand. But they can’t really hide from the physical and economic catastrophes that will accompany untrammelled global warming. The bell tolls for them as well.

The evidence suggests that, beyond a point of reasonable comfort, human happiness is not increased by the accumulation of more money and more stuff. We now have to choose between reasonable comfort for everyone or no comfort for anyone.