Reducing inequality could help the climate crisis

Replacing meat with more plant-based foods is an effective way of reducing emissions but can be expensive.

Reducing inequality is essential in tackling the climate crisis, researchers argue.

There’s far less attention being paid to the effect of inequality in changing behaviours to reduce carbon emissions.

Promoting climate-friendly behaviours will be more successful in societies where everyone has the capacity: financially, physically, and timewise, to make changes.

In a report just published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers argue that tackling inequality is vital in moving the world towards Net-Zero – because inequality constrains who can feasibly adopt low-carbon behaviours.

They say that changes are needed across society if we are to mitigate climate change effectively. Although wealthy people have very large carbon footprints, they often have the means to reduce their carbon footprint more easily than those on lower incomes.

Deep-rooted inequalities

The researchers say there is lack of political recognition of the barriers that can make it difficult for people to change to more climate-friendly behaviours. They suggest that policymakers provide equal opportunities for low-carbon behaviours across all income brackets of society.

The report defines inequality in various ways: in terms of wealth and income, political influence, free time, and access to low-carbon options such as public transport and housing insulation subsidies.

“It’s increasingly acknowledged that there’s inequality in terms of who causes climate change and who suffers the consequences, but there’s far less attention being paid to the effect of inequality in changing behaviours to reduce carbon emissions,” said Dr Charlotte Kukowski, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Cambridge Departments of Psychology and Zoology, and first author of the report.

She added: “People on lower incomes can be more restricted in the things they can do to help reduce their carbon footprint, in terms of the cost and time associated with doing things differently.” 

Unequal opportunities

The researchers found that deep-rooted inequalities can restrict people’s capacity to switch to lower-carbon behaviours in many ways. They cite several examples of this, such as the cost of insulating a house in the UK. Government subsidies are generally only available for homeowners; renters have little control over the houses they live in. The researchers call for appropriate government schemes that make it more feasible for people in lower income groups to reduce the carbon emissions of their home.

Cooking more meat-free meals is also flagged as a problem area. Eating more plant-based foods instead of meat and animal-derived products is one of the most effective changes an individual can make in reducing their carbon footprint, but plant-based meat alternatives currently tend to be less affordable than the animal products they are trying to replace. 

Buying an electric car or bike is a substantial upfront cost, and people who are not in permanent employment often cannot benefit from tax breaks or financing available through employer schemes.

Other low-carbon transport options - such as using public transport instead of a private car - are made less feasible for many due to poor services and high cost, particularly in rural areas. 

Involve everyone

“If you have more money you're likely to cause more carbon emissions, but you're also more likely to have greater ability to change the things you do and reduce those emissions,” said Dr Emma Garnett, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford and second author of the report.

She added: “Interventions targeting high-emitting individuals are urgently needed, but also many areas where there are lower-carbon choices - like food and transport - need everyone to be involved.”

The researchers say that campaigns to encourage people to switch to lower-carbon behaviours have tended to focus on providing information. While this is important in helping people understand the issues, there can still be many barriers to making changes.

They suggest a range of policy interventions, such as urban planning to include bus and bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly routes, progressive taxation rates on wealth and income, and employer-subsidised low-carbon meal options.

This Author

Ruby Harbour is a freelance journalist. This article is based on a press release from the University of Cambridge. The research was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and Wellcome.

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