Trying to keep up with the Kardashians will kill us.

Most carbon accounting is done country by country. While this is useful – as it is what states do – or don’t so – that will determine whether humanity is able to hold global heating below a level that will be survivable for human civilisation – it is also partly mystifying in missing out on who is primarily responsible for the threat that affects all of us.

A new report from OXFAM and the Stockholm Environment Institute tears away this veil by looking at the income levels of those responsible for the lions share of greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2015. (1) The findings are stark.

Within the 10%. the Richest 1% (just 63 million people) were responsible for 15% of carbon emissions.

This can be seen by sector.

The richest 10% are responsible for 75% of aviation emissions
And 45% of all land transport emissions. SUVs were the second biggest driver of global carbon emissions growth between 2010 and 2018.

So, if you look at this per capita, each person in the top 10% has a carbon footprint 250 times larger than everyone in the bottom 50%. That looks like this.

This is a direct ratio between the richest 10% and the poorest 50%.

The Report argues that cutting carbon emissions is therefore overwhelmingly urgent in the wealthiest countries, primarily the US and EU, which is where the majority of the 10% – and almost all of the 1% – are concentrated.

An economy in which profits are generated by hooking people onto a false “apirational” dream that emulating the conspicuous consumption of the uber wealthy in all sorts of cheap and nasty ersatz forms – with velocity and quantity substituting for quality – “Too much is never enough” – “Faster, Faster, Faster” – “You: only better” – “Keeping up with the Kardashians” – will kill us. Even the uber wealthy themselves; hunker down in a survival bunker, or flee to New Zealand and Patagonia though they might.

The delirious quality of a lot of current political discourse – and the increasingly frantic culture war distractions from the right – comes from the tensions involved in trying to stick to this suicidal course.

The policy prescriptions in the report are in line with the findings of the first UK Citizen’s Assembly on the climate crisis, have widespread public support and a lot in common with Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution policy.

“Wealth taxes, luxury carbon taxes – such as carbon sales taxes on SUVs, private jets or super yachts, or levies on business class or frequent flights – and wider progressive carbon pricing to fund, for example, the expansion of universal social services;
• Ending the tax-free status of aircraft fuel, unconditional aviation industry bailouts and tax breaks for company cars;
• Public investment, including to create decent job guarantees, alongside working-time reductions where appropriate, for example in:
o building infrastructure for electric mobility, public transport, cycling, walking and digital communications to create alternatives to carbon-intensive transport;
o improving energy efficiency of housing, especially to reduce energy bills for low income or marginalized groups;
o expanding low-carbon sectors like health and social care which overwhelmingly benefit women, low-income and marginalized groups;
• Banning advertising in public spaces, requiring more circular business models and a right to repair on manufactured goods, and changing corporate governance to curtail companies’ short-termism and create accountability for long-term social and environmental impacts;
• Setting science- and equity-based national targets to reduce carbon emissions from consumption as well as production,
• And, critically, incorporating principles of social dialogue at all levels to ensure that the voices of workers in affected industries, women, low-income and marginalized groups are heard in designing just transitions to an economy that keeps global heating below 1.5C”
(1)

The political problem is that they strike at the wealth, power and prerogatives of the top 1% whose interests our societies are structured to serve. Their resistance to polices like these – taking a peculiarly grotesque form in the Trump administration, but not restricted to it – goes some way to explaining why countries that consider themselves Socialist – like China, Cuba, Vietnam – whether they have received benediction in this respect from the Western Left or not – have done rather better at reducing the carbon intensity of their economies (see Blog – Mike Pompeo is standing on thin ice – and its melting).

  1. https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/carbon-emissions-richest-1-percent-more-double-emissions-poorest-half-humanity

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