Socially Just Solutions to Climate Change

Geographer and Energy Specialist, Neil Kitching, has published Carbon Choices on the common-sense solutions to our climate and nature crises. In this short article, Neil outlines five common-sense principles to tackle climate change and considers the social implications of the changes that are required.

Many commentators blame population growth for our climate crises. Whilst overpopulation certainly can cause environmental degradation in regions, the far bigger problem is overconsumption. The world produces more than double the amount of food that we need to consume to keep healthy. And, it appears that economic development is the best contraceptive. Fertility falls as childhood mortality falls and as countries develop. Women’s rights, literacy, education and job prospects are important and of course the availability of contraceptives helps.

Affluent lifestyles have caused most historical climate change. Whist certain countries like the USA and the oil rich states in the Middle East, have contributed disproportionately to climate change, there are affluent consumers in all countries that also make a big impact. An average citizen in the USA emits around 16 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, in Malawi it is 0.1 tonnes. So, an average person brought up in American emits 160 times that of a person who happens to live in Malawi.

There is a huge global inequity here as countries such as Malawi have not caused climate change but given their poor infrastructure and susceptibility to drought will be most vulnerable to its effects. Put another way, Europe and North America account for 16% of the world’s population but emit 46% of global emissions. Meanwhile in recent years fast growing economies like China have overtaken the USA in total annual carbon emission, although not per head of population.

In my book I identify, five common sense principles to tackle climate change:

1. Be fair across current and future generations

2. Price carbon pollution

3. Consume carefully, travel wisely

4. Embrace efficiency, avoid waste

5. Nurture nature

‘Be fair across current and future generations’ combines the ideas of equity and social justice. Equity applies between people who live in different countries, between rich and poor, those from different ethnic backgrounds and gender within countries, and between the young, old and future generations. Flowing from this are the concepts that we should take care not to penalise the less wealthy with tax rises, wealthier countries that caused climate change have a duty to help other countries, and we should not leave a toxic legacy to future generations. In Scotland, the 'Just Transition Commission' is tasked with ensuring that our net zero ambitions are inclusive for all. It is important to help people to retrain from jobs in declining industries such as oil and gas. For example, for a gas boiler installer to retrain as a heat pump installer.

‘Price carbon pollution’ is the concept that we should account for the external costs caused by our emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases.Carbon and other pollutants cause damage that falls on wider society and wildlife, with no economic incentive for an individual, company or even a country to reduce their emissions. Governments need to overcome this failure of the free market through taxes, subsidies, carbon trading, carbon offsetting or through bans and strict regulations. Our tax structure should shift from taxes on employment and income to taxes on expenditure and resource use although care needs to be taken to avoid penalising the less well off. To help tackle fuel poverty, one radical idea would be to offer a low price for the first (essential) units of electricity and gas used by a household then a higher price for further units used. This would incentivise larger households to invest in energy efficiency and is already a policy used in some countries to avoid overuse of water.

‘Consume carefully, travel wisely’ is about the choices we make as businesses and individuals. Consumers can buy and consume less and buy second-hand. Pay for quality goods that will last longer. Buying smaller can also make a significant impact, whether it is a smaller car, house or fridge; or using a smart phone instead of a desktop computer. Consider the need for travel, share travel and make low-carbon travel choices. Most of these ideas will provide financial savings to consumers. There is a strong social and environmental case to subsidise public transport and to tax environmentally damaging products like gas guzzling cars.

‘Embrace efficiency, avoid waste’ is a no brainer for business and consumers as it combines environmental benefits with cost savings. Energy and resource efficiency will reduce our overall requirement to extract resources from the environment, minimise pollution and cause less disruption to nature. In the