Getting carbon inequality onto the political agenda: the lessons of Brexit

Dario KennerGuest post from Dario Kenner who describes himself as ‘an independent researcher currently exploring the links between policies to reduce inequality and ecological footprints

In a fascinating post-Brexit blog George Marshall makes comparisons between the Remain campaign and how to/how not to successfully communicate on climate change issues. He says while the Leave campaign had a compelling storyline based on Let’s Take Back Control the “Remain storyline was far less coherent. Like climate change, it lacked a clear external enemy.” So does this mean we need to identify a more tangible external enemy, such as the individuals with the biggest carbon footprints, to mobilise people on climate change?

Marshall goes on to argue “In the case of climate change the problem is caused by all of us, however hard we try to project blame onto oil companies or high carbon polluters.” I fully agree bringing down the UK’s emissions will require all of us to make changes and so maybe it’s not helpful to blame others as an excuse for us to continue our own far too carbon-intensive lifestyles. But I also think that alongside the society-wide changes that are required we cannot ignore carbon inequality. The danger of not talking about high emitters is that they get away with it. This matters because there are indications of extreme differences between households in the UK.

In Oxfam’s report Extreme Carbon Inequality it’s estimated that the richest 10% of the households emit around 24 tonnes of CO2 per capita compared to the poorest 50% of households who each emit around 5 tonnes of CO2 per capita. Meanwhile French economists Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel estimate the richest 1% in the UK have the largest emissions per person.

carbon inequality 2It’s important to campaign on carbon inequality because of the link with economic inequality. The most extreme examples of rising income and wealth inequality are the countries where there is ‘plutonomy’. Oxfam America researcher Nick Galasso explains this word (based on research by Citibank) describes an economy where a rich minority “control most of the wealth and income, and consume nearly all the goods and services.” Countries that some researchers argue are plutonomies include the UK, along with the United States and Canada. What’s interesting is that these three countries top the carbon inequality chart above. Exploring the relationship between plutonomy and carbon inequality seems like an obvious area that needs more research e.g. building on Oxfam’s research on inequality in the UK and on carbon inequality (see more ideas on this research agenda from an expert workshop at IIED in April).

Duncan argues (and I agree) that the issue of carbon inequality currently lies right at the start of the policy funnel. Sopolicy funnel this means it’s still about agenda setting and doing more research on this nascent area. As part of this work, or at the next stage of the policy funnel, the debate could be framed around:

Why it’s a problem: Addressing carbon inequality is part of the work on reducing total emissions whilst at the same ensuring everyone has a minimum standard of living. See Kate Raworth’s work on ‘doughnut economics’ based on the idea that “between social and planetary boundaries lies an environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive.”

Moral/social justice arguments: It’s not fair that a minority of rich people in the UK have such large carbon footprints (polluter pays). The richest also have the most resources to change their behaviour (capability to pay) e.g. by installing solar panels or buying an electric car (in a way this is like applying the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities within countries).

Pragmatic arguments: Reducing the consumption-based emissions of the richest people makes sense because it is a significant component of total emissions. In addition the example of the richest puts pressure on those below them to pursue carbon intensive lifestyles (conspicuous consumption). And is it easier to achieve (rich people’s consumption more elastic/easily influenced by price signals, taxation, regulation)?

Then in future (when hopefully carbon inequality is on the radar) the focus would be on building coalitions to pressure policy makers to act. As many people are saying, including Naomi Klein, dealing with climate change is not carbno inequality 3just an environmental issue. It’s about social justice. So  excluded groups (e.g. women, children, disabled people, and ethnic minorities who live in poverty) and groups campaigning on social inequalities could come together to demand that the richest reduce their large carbon footprints and so both free up carbon space for the less privileged and reduce overall emissions (this will be especially important in countries in the global south where it’s likely that a small elite have huge carbon footprints while marginalised people have zero or tiny footprints). These coalitions could campaign for the revenue from policies that target the richest, like luxury taxes on carbon intensive goods, to fund things like renewable energy.

Over the next few years of uncertainty the policy funnel is going to be very busy with sorting out the post-Brexit mess. Also it will probably be very difficult to convince politicians to talk about carbon inequality because they are often members of the richest households who have the largest carbon footprints. So I think it’s the long game here (unfortunately) meaning the first step is to get a debate going on carbon inequality in the UK (and elsewhere) and what to do about it.

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2 Responses to “Getting carbon inequality onto the political agenda: the lessons of Brexit”
  1. Peter Morgan

    I don’t see from this where the high CO2 generation of the wealthy is concentrated. You suggest that installing “solar panels or buying an electric car” might make a difference for wealthy consumers, but if most of their CO2 generation derives from air travel, hotels, dining, and cruises, say, such changes will have relatively little impact, no different from an individual middle class consumer buying an electric car. I take it that wealthy people commonly and tendentiously justify their much greater consumption as worthwhile because their business activities generate wealth for other people, and I can’t see the argument as I see it here moving that kind of mindset.

  2. Dario Kenner

    Hello Peter,
    To answer some of your questions.
    # We definitely need more detail on the carbon footprint of the wealthiest. For the research on the CO2 footprint of the wealthiest see the technical report that accompanies the Oxfam report ( and see Piketty and Chancel on their estimates of the richest 1% in each country (

    # Yes it’s true what you say about solar panels and electric cars. The point I was making was that the people below the wealthiest (e.g. poorest and middle class) might install more solar panels and buy more electric cars if they had enough money, and this would have a big impact on national emissions.

    # Of course what is needed alongside solar panels and electric cars is that the wealthiest change their lifestyle e.g. flying less. As you say the wealthiest often justify their consumption in different ways (e.g. wealth creation as you say, I would add philanthropy). So the challenge is to figure out how to make the lifestyles of the wealthiest more environmentally friendly, this is something they probably won’t do voluntarily….