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Reducing inequality is a major battle in the war against climate change

A recent report published in the journal Nature Climate Change emphasizes the crucial role of addressing inequality in achieving net-zero carbon emissions. The researchers argue that inequality significantly limits individuals’ capacity to adopt low-carbon behaviors, calling for societal changes and political acknowledgment of these barriers.

Various forms of inequality 

The report, authored by Dr. Charlotte Kukowski, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, and Dr. Emma Garnett, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, highlights various forms of inequality, including wealth, income, political influence, free time, and access to low-carbon options like public transport and housing insulation subsidies.

“It’s increasingly acknowledged that there’s inequality in terms of who causes climate change and who suffers the consequences, but there’s far less attention being paid to the effect of inequality in changing behaviors to reduce carbon emissions,” Kukowski said, noting that those on lower incomes face more restrictions in reducing their carbon footprint due to cost and time constraints.

Financial inequalities 

The report details how deep-rooted inequalities hinder the shift to lower-carbon behaviors. For instance, in the UK, insulating a house can be costly, with subsidies mainly available for homeowners, leaving renters with little control over their living conditions. 

The UK’s old, poorly insulated houses demand more energy for heating, necessitating government schemes that aid lower-income groups in reducing home carbon emissions.

Similarly, plant-based meat alternatives, though more sustainable, are often less affordable than animal products. Despite the significant impact of eating more plant-based foods on carbon footprint reduction, the cost makes it less accessible for those on lower incomes.

Inability to change behaviors 

The researchers also highlight the challenges in acquiring electric vehicles and bikes due to their high upfront costs and the inaccessibility of tax breaks or financing for those not in permanent employment. Additionally, inadequate public transport services, especially in rural areas, make it difficult for many to opt for this lower-carbon transport method.

“If you have more money you’re likely to cause more carbon emissions, but you’re also more likely to have greater ability to change the things you do and reduce those emissions,” Garnett explains. She stresses the need for interventions targeting high emitters and making lower-carbon choices in areas like food and transport accessible to everyone.

Overcoming the barriers to change

The researchers criticize current campaigns focusing mainly on providing information, pointing out that understanding the issues doesn’t automatically overcome barriers to change. 

“Policies and psychological approaches often overemphasize individual agency, overlooking how socioeconomic inequality can constrain access to low-carbon alternatives. We argue that tackling these inequalities is urgent for impactful, equitable behavior change,” wrote the experts. 

The experts propose policy interventions, such as urban planning for bus and bike lanes, progressive taxation, and employer-subsidized low-carbon meal options, to facilitate more inclusive and practical ways for people to adopt lower-carbon lifestyles.

This report underscores the intricate link between socio-economic inequality and environmental sustainability, advocating for comprehensive strategies that address both to effectively combat climate change.

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