Climate Clinic: LibDem conference

How global and societal inequality heats the planet

Extremes of wealth and poverty harm us all, say Toby Quantrill and Richard Wilkinson

A A A

Tackling climate change will require fundamental social and economic changes. In the developed world, we need to learn how to consume less and become more efficient in translating consumption into social benefit without increasing emissions.

In contrast to poorer countries, which desperately need higher material standards to improve basic living conditions, the rich countries have got to the end of the real social benefits of economic growth. Health, happiness and measures of well-being have ceased to be related to increases in GNP per head. Although rich countries emit many times more than their share of CO2, our consumerist culture continues to drive economic growth to ever more unsustainable levels.

Greater equality, both within and between countries, must be a core part of how we achieve global sustainability and poverty reduction. Efforts to tackle climate change are likely to fail unless we succeed in reversing patterns of national and global inequality.

Greater equality is needed within rich countries because inequality drives status competition and so the pressure to consume. Greater inequality makes money even more important socially as a marker of rank and self worth. People in more unequal societies work longer hours, save less of their incomes, are more likely to get into debt and more likely to be declared bankrupt.

In addition, community life is weaker in more unequal societies; people trust each other less and there is more violence. People are more self-interested, more out for themselves, and less concerned with the public good. This can make it harder to encourage the required shifts in consumption.

Henry Wallich, a former governor of America's Federal Reserve Bank, said: "Growth is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth, [people feel] there is hope, and that makes large income differences tolerable." However, this works both ways. Because greater equality reduces status competition and improves the quality of social relations, it is not merely a substitute for growth: it is a precondition for freeing ourselves from unsustainable consumerism.

Achieving sustainability requires populations to act for the social good as never before. More equal societies are more public-spirited: they recycle more; their business leaders attach more importance to their government's compliance with international environmental agreements; and each dollar of output in more equal countries is produced at a lower carbon cost. If people are to act in accordance with common environmental interests, it is essential that inequality – with all its divisive and socially corrosive effects – is substantially reduced.

More equal rich countries also give a higher proportion of their national income in foreign aid and score better on the Global Peace Index. But, faced with the threat of climate change, global poverty reduction requires more than that. It demands more structural changes in the relationship between rich and poor countries. For instance, by choosing Fairtrade products, where the benefits of trade are more fairly distributed, we can contribute – albeit in a small way – to greater global equality.

Despite concerns about "air miles", there is a growing body of evidence that Fairtrade consumption represents an inconsequential component of our food-related carbon footprint. And there is also evidence that buying products such as Fairtrade, which aim to help stabilise producers' lives and provide resources to build capacity, can act as an effective mechanism to support poor people in their struggle to adapt to climate change.

Toby Quantrill is Head of Public Policy, the Fairtrade Foundation; Richard Wilkinson is co-author of 'The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant -Engineering -Renewable Energy

£18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive: SThree: As an Associate Recruitment C...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map