Oxfam’s annual wealth report, Inequality Kills, has rightly attracted attention for revealing how the incomes of the world’s ten richest people have doubled during the pandemic, while the incomes of 99% of people have effectively reduced during the same period. But the report, along with other recent analysis, also provides further critical evidence of how economic inequality is driving climate breakdown. As such, it is a problem that is not just confined to a handful of billionaires but the excessive consumption patterns of the wealthiest few hundred million of us, who compromise under 10 per cent of humanity but cause over half of its greenhouse gas pollution.
The situation is laid out clearly in an earlier Oxfam report, Confronting Carbon Inequality, which explains how the consumption levels of the wealthiest are so great that even if everyone else in the world reduced their emissions to zero tomorrow, the richest 10% would still have burned through the entire world’s carbon budget* for this century soon after 2030.
The richest ten people in the world are easy to identify, but who comprises the richest 10%? Well, it’s a large group of people for a start, many of whom would probably be surprised to find that they constitute a wealthy elite, because there are plenty of people around them who are richer and most of us rarely think about our own relative wealth in global terms. This group of 630 million-plus fortunate citizens enjoy an average net income (ie after tax) of over $55,000 (£40,000) per year and/or have net assets of over $100,000 (such as the value of a house minus the mortgage balance and a pension pot).
It’s a group that includes me and probably a large proportion of people reading this blog in Europe and North America, because it encompasses a good chunk of middle-aged to older people in professional jobs in our societies. Indeed, while there are representatives of the wealthiest 10% in every country, “[a]round half the emissions of the richest 10% (24.5% of global emissions) are today associated with the consumption of citizens of North American and the EU.”
Those seeking to deflect attention away from the links between wealth, excessive consumption and climate breakdown often posit a rapidly growing population as the biggest threat to a climate-safe future – a dog-whistle call to turn our critical gaze to the poorest parts of the world. Yet Oxfam’s data shows that not only are the richest ten per cent responsible for a disproportionate share of historic emissions, but they contributed 46% of all the growth in emissions between 1990 and 2015 (the end point for the data in Confronting Carbon Inequality – see Figure 2 in that report).
According to Inequality Kills, “Since 1995, the top 1% [alone] have captured nearly 20 times more of global wealth than the bottom 50% of humanity”. As Professor Jayati Ghosh argues in the foreword to the report, “Here’s a hard truth that the pandemic brought home to us. Unequal access to incomes and opportunities does more than create unjust, unhealthy, and unhappy societies: it actually kills people. Over the past two years, people have died when they contracted an infectious disease because they did not get vaccines in time, even though those vaccines could have been more widely produced and distributed if the technology had been shared.”
So how did we end up with societies that are so unequal, where the consumption levels of a minority threaten the future of human civilisation itself?
This, Inequality Kills argues, “is not by chance, but choice: ‘economic violence’ is perpetrated when structural policy choices are made for the richest and most powerful people…At the core of the inequality crisis is a highly extractive economic model based on grossly carbon-intensive growth, which largely meets the needs of those who are already rich but it is loading the greatest risks onto those living in poverty.”
It’s not just that the wealthiest people and nations are making bad choices about what they consume, according to economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel, in his thought-provoking book ‘Less is More’, but that the survival of the world’s dominant economic model – neo-liberal capitalism – is dependent on ever-increasing growth in consumption of stuff in general. According to Hickel, “Scientists estimate that the planet can handle a total material footprint of up to about 50 billion tonnes per year…Today we are exceeding that boundary twice over. And virtually all of this overshoot is being driven by excessive consumption in high-income nations…It is a bitter irony that we have been persuaded to use the term ‘growth’ to describe what has now become primarily a process of breakdown.”
It is not the purpose of this blog to delve deeply into the solutions to this combined crisis of inequality and breaching of planetary boundaries, but it is worth noting two propositions in Oxfam’s reports that bear particular reflection.
First, it does not require that everyone is poor for humanity to stop climate breakdown, only that the wealthiest consume a fairer share of common resources. The Confronting Carbon Inequality analysis finds that if, as a start, the richest ten per cent reduced their carbon footprint to simply the average of citizens of the European Union it would cut global emissions by 25% a year.
Second, there is not a lack of available money to tackle inequality and climate breakdown, only an unwillingness to distribute it fairly. As an example, Inequality Kills calculates that a one-off windfall tax to clawback 99% of the COVID-19 wealth gains of the 10 richest people would generate $812bn, enough to provide “vaccines for the entire world and fill financing gaps in climate measures, universal health and social protection, and efforts to address gender-based violence in over 80 countries, while still leaving these men $8bn better off than they were before the pandemic.”
More broadly, we have seen that in response to one existential crisis – the COVID-19 pandemic – governments around the world have so far released over $16 trillion to manufacture vaccines, extend healthcare, pay wages, and subsidise businesses through lockdowns. That’s $16 trillion that before the pandemic most presidents and prime ministers would have said only existed on mythical magic money trees. Similarly, the public sector – once derided as a drag on productivity and freedom – has proved the cornerstone of healthy societies and has been mobilised like never before in peacetime. I have seen this very concretely with the city governments with which I work, many of whom had no previous responsibility for healthcare but have become major providers of vaccines or testing facilities, or which have created entirely new welfare services to support those unable to work during lockdowns, often without national government support.
Now we need to apply the same crisis mentality to addressing the climate emergency. As Oxfam concludes in Inequality Kills: “If we are courageous, and listen to the movements demanding change, we can create an economy in which nobody lives in poverty.. [and] in which inequality no longer kills.”
*’carbon budget’ here meaning the scientifically calculated remaining amount of emissions we can risk pumping into the atmosphere and still hope to constrain global heating below 1.5 degrees