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'