The climate crisis is a matter of justice on many different levels. Among them is the fact that the damage is mainly caused by the richest, though it is the poorest that are most exposed to the harm. This is true internationally and within countries too.
Here in Britain, the richest have vastly larger climate footprints. In a recent report by the think tank Autonomy, they looked at 20 years of carbon emissions by income group. The top 1% have a much greater impact:
It would take 26 years for someone in the lowest income decile to emit the carbon that the richest emit in a single year. (Much of that is from flying, which is why we need a frequent flyer levy, something there is broad political support for.)
As a matter of fairness, climate policy ought to target the high consumption of the rich first – for example through a carbon tax. Autonomy have been modeling possibilities for a such a tax. They suggest that if a carbon tax on the top 1% of emitters had been introduced 20 years ago, it would so far have raised £126 billion. That would be enough to retrofit 8 million homes, starting with those on the lowest incomes. Or it could have paid for renewable energy, reducing the nation’s dependency on gas and the price shocks that come with it.
Since no such tax was in place, say Autonomy, “the richest 1% have been free to ‘dump’ disproportionately large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere for little to no cost, creating a burden now shouldered by the rest of the population.”
This is a missed opportunity of course, but by sketching it out, Autonomy make the case for bringing in a carbon tax on the 1% now instead. The sooner the better, as “every year in which the excessive carbon impacts of the wealthiest 1% continue unabated is another lost year in revenue to fuel a green transition.”
- Autonomy’s case study is admirably short and easy to read if you want to know more.
- See also Dario Kenner’s excellent book Carbon Inequality.