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Filthy rich

19 April, 2021

Earth’s population has doubled over the last 50 years to almost eight billion. This has a significant carbon impact and puts services such as family planning and female education firmly in the spotlight as important weapons in the fight against climate change.  

But this focus obscures an important factor: that everyone’s contribution towards climate change is not equal. A report published this week from The Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change highlights that the wealthiest 1% of people contribute the same in terms of greenhouse gas emissions as the bottom 50%, and looks at the key behavioural levers for reducing over-consumption.  

The report is far reaching, setting out the importance of individual and household emissions and their distribution along socioeconomic lines; exploring, in detail, the psychological and economic methods for changing behaviour in this context, and highlighting some of the existing examples that bring this to life. One particularly interesting area for discussion is the vexed question of how to allocate ‘emissions entitlements’ – whether everyone should reduce their impact by the same percentage reduction in emissions or whether we need to converge at the same absolute level, and how these levels are defined and managed.  

While the wealthiest have the greatest impact – and therefore the greatest opportunity to create change through their behaviours – the effects of climate change will be felt disproportionately by the poorest. Inequality and climate change are inextricably linked; here as elsewhere. Just as large-scale philanthropic donations have become as much a part of the mega-bucks lifestyle as the yacht and the bling, is a modest carbon footprint soon to become the latest status symbol? We hope so. 

By Patrick Bapty

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