Tackling inequality and sustainability together

Sociologists have shown how inequality affects many different aspects of life, from economic development, to wellbeing, social stability and democracy. It has grown as a political priority in recent years. It has risen up the agenda at the same time as sustainability, which is a growing global challenge. The climate crisis is perhaps the most urgent, but air pollution, plastics, soil loss, water depletion and biodiversity decline are all pressing environmental issues.

These two priorities, inequality and sustainability, can sometimes compete for political attention. Sometimes this can lead to counter-productive outcomes. Governments might pursue growth to try and raise people out of poverty, but in a way that accelerates environmental damage – like Brazil opening the Amazon rainforest for development, for example.

In can work the other way too, with environmental policies accidentally working against equality. For example, support for domestic solar power could be paid for through consumers bills, creating a regressive policy: low income households pay for a subsidy that they will never benefit from, because they can’t afford solar panels.

As Christians, we recognise the call to care for the poor and would want to prioritise their needs. Equally, we know the call to stewardship and to earth care. It is important that we respect both of these priorities. So how do we hold both objectives together, and ensure that government departments don’t undo with one hand what they do with the other?

Fortunately, this is a topic that has been investigated recently, and there are plenty of examples that show how inequality and sustainability can be addressed together, with mutually reinforcing policies.

The circular economy is one area that could create multiple benefits. Circular economy principles benefit the environment by reducing materials and waste. It can play a role in inequality by creating skilled and semi-skilled jobs in repair and remanufacturing. A Green Alliance study in Britain suggested that the areas of the country that would see the most benefits from a circular economy would be industrial areas where unemployment is highest.

High quality public transport can also reduce inequality while lowering emissions and air pollution. For example, the Transmillennio bus rapid transit system in Bogota reduced CO2 emissions from the city’s bus fleet by 40% in its first year of operation. Its boarding platforms brought increased mobility opportunities to the elderly and disabled. Since the buses were quicker than cars in the rush hour traffic, those who couldn’t afford private motor transport had a better service than those who could afford to drive – for once.

Community energy can also bring co-benefits. Wind, solar or small scale hydro power can replace gas or coal generation and lower emissions. When done through community owned companies or cooperatives, this spreads the profits through the community rather than to shareholders. People have a stake in their own energy, enjoying the profits locally rather than seeing money leave their community for the benefit of distant investors.

There are many other examples. For a deeper look at Britain, India and Kenya, and some intriguing case studies, see the Green Economy Coalition report How Green Can be Fair.

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