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Facing the climate crisis in a world of inequality: Who should pay? Who will pay?

- Imraan Valodia, Katrina Lehmann-Grube and Julia Taylor

Climate change worsens inequality and inequality worsens climate change, warn experts.

On 14 March 2023, Wits University will host renowned economic historian Adam Tooze in a discussion titled: ‘Facing the climate crisis in a world of inequality: Who should pay? Who will pay?’. 

There is arguably no better place in the world to be having a conversation on this topic. South Africa holds the dishonourable title of most unequal country in the world, and Africa’s largest carbon emitter (by far), while also being highly vulnerable to climate change. 

These three facts do not occur independently of each other. As Tooze and others have noted, climate change and inequality are deeply intertwined. It is also a relationship that is of increasing interest globally, as both topics have risen in prominence over the past 10-15 years. 

So, what is the nature of the relationship between climate change and inequality? 

First, climate change worsens inequality. This is a fact that has been acknowledged almost across the board, including by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the foremost scientific body on climate change. This happens at different scales. As a whole, poor countries – and particularly African ones – are most exposed to climate change, more likely to be hit by disasters, and more affected by increased temperatures and drought. When this happens, there is massive damage to lives, livelihoods, and social and physical infrastructure. 

These countries have fewer resources to cope with the impacts. Resources have to be spent on recovery, or borrowed, rather than making systems more adaptive and resilient. This makes them more vulnerable in the future, becoming less resilient over time, with ever increasing debt burdens

This applies at household level too. Poor households are more physically exposed to climate impacts but are also less financially resilient, as income is largely spent on meeting basic needs. Wealthier households on the other hand, are able to cope with crises through mechanisms such as insurance, or by simply delaying more luxury purchases. This can similarly lead to debt spirals or positive feedback loops of worsening vulnerability for the most marginalised. The ways in which these dynamics unfold intersects with other forms of inequality, including racial and gender inequality, particularly in South Africa. 

Second, inequality worsens climate change and is at the heart of the question on responsibility for its causes. Although widely attributed to “human activity”, the responsibility for climate change is hardly shared by all of humanity. The rich and powerful have overwhelmingly been responsible for and profited from the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions. 

The United States and Europe are historically responsible for the most greenhouse gas emissions. More so, when one considers the impact of colonialism and extractivism which these countries perpetuated around the world and from which their own wealth was built. 

This has, at least in theory, been the basis for most global climate policy and debate, around concepts such as the “polluter pays” principle, or the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility”. The costs of loss and damage due to climate impacts are growing and although progress was finally made at COP27 with the agreement to establish a finance facility for loss and damage, how this is implemented will be vital to ensure climate justice.  

However, in the past few decades this picture has changed dramatically. 

Now, China is by far the largest emitter globally (in absolute terms, not per capita), with India also featuring in the list of the top five. Inequality in emissions within countries now plays a more significant role due to the emergence of local elites, with large carbon appetites, within many parts of the global South. These elites have now become part of the contributing classes globally – both in their consumption emissions, but also as owners and profiteers from polluting activities. As one study has shown, in 2019, the richest 1% globally were responsible for 17% of emissions, while the poorest 50% were responsible for only 11.5%. 

This is also true in the case of South Africa. As the most unequal country in the world, this pattern is also reflected in emissions’ responsibilities between income groups here. According to the Stockholm Environmental Institute’s Emissions Inequality Dashboard, in 2015, the top 1% of income earners were responsible for 18% of emissions, more than double those of the bottom 50%, who accounted for only 7%. 

While this pattern of emissions’ inequality between income groups has occurred for a long time, it has worsened in the past few decades. Between 1990 and 2015, the contribution of the bottom 50% dropped from 16% to 7%, while those of the top 1% grew from 10% to 18%. This matches the pattern of worsening inequality and increased concentration of wealth that can be seen in almost all parts of the world. 

This raises important questions such as who should pay (the global north, new emitters, or local elites?) or more importantly, who will pay? 

As Tooze points out, “the climate crisis is a political economy problem”, shaped by “social hierarchy, inequality and class structure”. In South Africa, the context of our status as Africa’s highest emitter is based on our history as a carbon-intensive mining economy, built not only on the cheap and plentiful coal, but also, through apartheid, exploited and oppressed Black workers. In South Africa, the responsibility for our emissions should not be borne by workers and low-income households.  

These questions will form the basis of the discussion taking place with Adam Tooze at 4pm, on 14 March at Wits University. Please register using this link to attend online or in person at the Wits campus. These are essential justice questions that South Africa must increasingly grapple with, as the financing debates about the just transition bear fruit. We hope you will join in on this conversation.

Professor Imraan Valodia is Pro Vice-Chancellor: Climate, Sustainability and Inequality, and Director of the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Wits). Julia Taylor is a Researcher on climate change and inequality at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies. Katrina Lehmann-Grube is an Associate Researcher on climate change and inequality at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies.

This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick

Register for the webinar here.