Climate Change and Inequality
Climate change and economic inequality are inextricably linked. A recent report from Oxfam revealed that the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet are responsible for only around 10% of the total emissions from individual consumption, yet are living overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change.
In fact, the richest 10% of the world are responsible for around half of the world’s carbon emissions.
This carbon map is such an insightful resource to help convey how different countries fit into the climate change picture – both in terms of countries most responsible for the causes and the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis. The interactive map provides a more nuanced picture, by collating data from various different sources to show where the fossil fuels that become CO₂ are extracted from, where they’re burned and therefore release emissions, and where the resulting goods and services are consumed.
It also includes a historical perspective in the form of cumulative emissions from the last 150 years, and one view of potential future emissions in the form of each country’s estimated fossil fuel reserves.
Who gets the blame?
China is currently the highest emitting producer of Carbon Dioxide in the world, at around 9.8 billion tonnes per year. When it comes to taking climate action, there is a tendency to lay the blame solely with China.
However, this is an unfair thing to do and there is more to the story.
The first thing to take into account is that approximately 1.393 billion people live in China, vs approximately 66.65 million in the UK. If you work out the carbon footprint per capita (as in, take the carbon footprint of the country and divide it by the amount of people that live there,) China has a carbon footprint per capita of approximately 6.6 tonnes CO2e, the UK’s carbon footprint per capita is approximately 5.7 tonnes CO2e (data from 2016 in the “Global Disparity in Carbon Footprints graph).
Also, bear in mind where everything gets made! China is essentially the factory of the world, and therefore if the rest of the world didn’t have the need for everything they produce, then it’s likely that the carbon footprint of China would drop considerably.
Another thing to bear in mind is who has been historically responsible for releasing CO2, as we know from earlier that CO2 sticks around in the atmosphere for a very long time. From the graph labelled “cumulative CO2 emissions, 1751 – 2017”, we can see that when it comes to the cumulative CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution in the 1800’s, by far in the lead is the USA. What is also quite shocking is that the UK is 5th on this list!
So in conclusion, China absolutely has its part to play when it comes to tackling climate change, but so do many other countries including the United Kingdom.
Who is most at risk from Climate Change?
The Global Climate Risk Index analyses to what extent countries and regions have been affected by impacts of weather-related loss events (storms, floods, heatwaves etc.) using the most recent data available.
The report shows signs of escalating climate change that can no longer be ignored – on any continent or in any region. Impacts from extreme weather events are hitting the poorest countries hardest, as these are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of a hazard and have a lower coping capacity and may need more time to rebuild and recover.
The Climate Risk Index may serve as a red flag for already existing vulnerabilities that may further increase as extreme events will become more frequent or more severe due to climate change.
When you compare the carbon footprints per capita of these at risk countries with the carbon footprints per capita of the richest countries, a bleak picture begins to form…
The countries on the left are the 10 richest countries by GDP. On the right, you can see the 10 countries most at risk according to the Climate Risk Index.
You have to ask the question, how is this fair? Why do the richest countries get to emit whatever they want at the expense of the poorer countries who are more likely to feel the effects?
The Philippines is one of the most affected countries by climate change in the world, but only has a carbon footprint of 1.4 tonnes CO2e per person, about 80% less than that of the UK.
Philippines sits in the western Pacific Ocean, surrounded by naturally warm water that will likely get warmer as the sea-surface temperature rises.
To some extent, this is normal as the ocean surface warms as it absorbs sunlight. The ocean then releases some of its heat into the atmosphere, creating wind and rain clouds. However, as the ocean’s surface temperature increases over time, more and more heat is being released into the atmosphere. This additional heat in the ocean can lead to stronger and more intense storms, which is exactly what we’ve seen over the last decade.
There is also nothing standing between them and the sea, as the Philippines is a collection of 7,000 islands. In addition to their coral reefs, which are one of the best buffers against typhoons, the Philippines also have mangrove ecosystems which help to mitigate the impact of the storm and stabilise the soil. However, these have disappeared by almost half since 1918 due to deforestation.
Please watch the video of Yeb Sano appearing at the COP19 in 2013, just after super typhoon Hayan ripped through the Philippines.
Climate change is not some distant and far away thing. It is causing real people real pain and suffering right now.
Climate justice is a term, and a movement, that acknowledges that the climate crisis has amplified social, economic, public health inequalities, and other adverse impacts on marginalised communities.
Advocates for climate justice are striving to have these inequities addressed head-on through long-term mitigation and adaptation strategies. Climate justice begins with recognising that the impacts of the climate crisis are not experienced equally, and it is often those who have contributed the least that are experiencing the most devastating consequences.
Climate impacts exacerbate inequitable social conditions. Low-income communities, people of colour, Indigenous People, disabled people, older or very young people, women – all can be more susceptible to risks posed by climate impacts like raging storms and floods, increasing wildfire, severe heat, poor air quality, access to food and water, and disappearing shorelines.
Mary Robinson (former president of Ireland) states:
“Climate justice is a moral argument in two parts. Firstly, it compels us to understand the challenges faced by those people and communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Often the people on the front lines of climate change have contributed least to the causes of the climate crisis. This is an injustice which can only be rectified by swift and ambitious climate action”
“Climate justice also informs how we should act to combat climate change… This requires that the global community acts in solidarity and ensures that the necessary resources are available to allow all countries and people to make the transition to clean, renewable energy on the same timescale.”
“Climate justice focuses our attention on people, rather than ice-caps and greenhouse gases. I think this makes the threat of climate change more tangible”.
There is a “North/South” divide when it comes to the effect of climate change, with the north of England being more at risk of flooding than southern England. Yorkshire and Humberside in particular is estimated to be the most flood-disadvantaged English region.
Many socially deprived neighbourhoods are also socially vulnerable to climate events, because it’s not just about the likelihood and degree of their exposure to events such as flooding and heatwaves, but also by the potential for losses in their well-being as a result of these events.
Already vulnerable people and people of the global majority are particularly at risk. Please watch the video by David Lammy MP on why climate justice can’t happen without racial justice.
Further reading on this topic can be found on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website.
Climate Change and Inequality Quiz
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