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


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?
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West, performing in New York last week, has been the subject of controversy as rock's traditional headline slot at Glastonbury is lost once again
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Life and Style
Drinking - often heavily - is a running theme throughout HBO's Game of Thrones adaptation
food + drink
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living