IWA Analysis: Climate and Inequality: Where do we go from here?

Joe Rossiter, the IWA’s Policy and External Affairs Manager, reflects ahead of COP28 on the state of climate and inequality The picture shows a protester holding a sign that says 'There is no planet B'

Joe Rossiter, the IWA’s Policy and External Affairs Manager, reflects ahead of COP28 on the state of climate and inequality

Ahead of COP28, The Guardian, working alongside Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, has released an investigation entitled The Great Carbon Divide.

The project underlines the scale of global climate inequality, finding that the richest one per cent account for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66 per cent. The investigation also found inequalities within nations, finding that the richest 10 per cent of people in many countries cause up to 440 times more climate-heating emissions than the poorest 10 per cent of their fellow citizens.

Despite this, as we know, the global impacts of climate change are felt most by the nations (and people) least complicit in producing emissions. More than 91 per cent of deaths caused by climate-related disasters of the past 50 years have occurred in developing countries.  

The costs of tackling climate breakdown should fall on those causing it, not those most at risk from it

As the Oxfam report notes, it is well beyond the time to consider the climate crisis and spiralling inequality as two sides of the same coin.

Taken together, the investigation paints a picture of climate injustice writ large on a global scale. But the scale of inequality is as much within nations as it is between them. It’s more pressing than ever to set out what climate justice and a fair transition to net zero mean, in both policy and practical terms.

What now? Key principles for action

But where do we go from here, from the bleak picture of unfairness and disaster we find ourselves in?

Well let’s start at first principles, looking through a Welsh-specific lens, within a wider global context of unfairness and injustice.

First, it is clear that the principle of the ‘polluter pays’ should form the basis for our next steps. And I mean this not only on an individual level, but on a systemic level. Shifting the blame onto individuals has an inherently limited impact. Broadly speaking, the costs of causing climate breakdown should fall on those tackling it, not those most at risk from it. This means environmentally damaging practices should not be financially rewarded, but come at a cost. 

Sectors of our economy which disproportionately emit carbon, pollute our environment or are unwilling to support Wales in our collective efforts to reach net zero should be subject to taxation, loss of subsidy and increased costs of doing business, to better reflect their negative environmental impact. Examples of such policy instruments could include: a global windfall tax on fossil fuels, a frequent flyer tax, a socially equitable road user tax.

If the overwhelming goal is tackling climate change, reducing inequality and raising living standards, then the tax system should speak to these goals.

Second, and given the context provided by the Oxfam report, we need to take a global perspective much more consistently. Our over-production of carbon emissions is creating climate catastrophe across the globe today, and further fueling it for future generations. We should face up to this fact. We should also not turn a blind eye when attempts are made to ‘offshore’ our high carbon practices to other nations. We should take a globally-responsible approach and lens to our efforts to curtail our nation’s emissions.

Use public money for public good. Taxpayer money continues to be ploughed into practices which actively damage our environment. Far more public money has been ploughed into fossil fuel extraction than into supporting renewable alternatives over the past decade. Subsidy should be used to encourage the whole-scape net zero transition. Business as usual is not an option.

Our tax and subsidy system should shoulder the burden of the transition. The design of our tax system should reflect the goals of our economy. If the overwhelming goal is tackling climate change, reducing inequality and raising living standards, then the tax system should speak to these goals.

Give environmental legislation teeth. Legislation to protect nature and our environment is not a ‘nice to have’. It should create the lens through which we measure the success of our economy. Without power, environmental legislation is failing to meet its own goals, whether this is on fossil fuel extraction, public procurement practices or protecting our natural environment. 

Don’t take a blanket approach. Support people to transition who cannot afford it. Utilise policy carrots and sticks appropriately. Those who can afford to pay higher taxation (and correspondingly emit more carbon) should be made to do so, but subsidy and financial support should be targeted at those on lower incomes or living in poverty.

Phase out fossil fuel extraction. It’s clear that we need to transition to an economy where we leave fossil fuels in the ground. The UN have recently been more forthright on the need to phase out fossil fuel extraction in order for nations to meet their Paris Agreement goals. That UK Government have continued to grant new fossil fuel licences severely undermines the the UK-wide commitment to reach net zero by 2050. Turbocharging investment in renewables is the only route to a sustainable and secure energy future.

Gofod i drafod, dadlau, ac ymchwilio.
Cefnogwch brif felin drafod annibynnol Cymru.


Encourage the private sector to join us on this collective endeavour. This is especially important given the lack of public funding available in Wales to deliver the scale of the investment needed to transition to net zero. Correspondingly, businesses will play an absolutely vital role, in delivering and funding key projects. How can Welsh and UK Government’s help to create the conditions for businesses to invest in decarbonisation? By providing a clear and long term policy vision for business to contribute to, invest what funds you have to encourage large scale decarbonisation projects and create the conditions for the green skills of the future to exist here in Wales, in order to retain economic benefit. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to speed up our collective net zero mission. A recent UN report found that national climate action plans remain insufficient to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The time for equivocation and kicking the can down the road has gone.  

This list is of course not exhaustive, but it is difficult to see these principles in action in our policy environment today.

Translating this to Wales

Of course in the above I’m discussing a global crisis at a global scale. But there are key lessons for what we do here in Wales.

Recent events have shown that, despite going in the right direction in a number of areas, we are not transitioning to net zero either equitably or quickly enough.

As I’ve written previously, the Tata Steel investment plan will likely result in the loss of around 3,000 jobs in Port Talbot and surrounding areas. This is about as unjust an example as one can think of. If we are to produce a just transition that all in Wales can buy into, then we have to put our money where our mouth is, and start delivering on a wide-ranging green skills plan. Without which, the Tata Steel example will be repeated, with an effort to decarbonise industry appearing synonymous with a lack of economic opportunity.

We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past when it comes to industrial transition.

Likewise, we need to give our environmental legislation teeth. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act is rightly lauded internationally as a piece of legislation that enshrines the UN Sustainable Development Goals within a national context. The Act is doing the slow and often underestimated work of changing public sector decision making. However, is the Act set up to ensure that decisions more broadly are in line with future generations in mind? Is it sufficiently resourced to deliver its remit at large? Is it empowered to challenge decisions which are in contravention of the Wellbeing goals? Whilst these remain open questions, I’m glad to see the Future Generations Commissioner is looking at the way the legislation operates as part of their new Cymru Can strategy, recently released.

A further example of this lack of regulatory teeth is that the largest opencast mine in the UK, Ffos-y-Ffran, continues to dig up coal despite its licence ending. What message does this send about our commitment to net zero?

We cannot lose sight of the dual priorities of net zero whilst alleviating inequality and lifting living standards for low-and-middle income households. We cannot repeat the historical mistakes of leaving communities behind as we transition to net zero.

More broadly, the UK Climate Change Committee suggests that Wales is decarbonising too slowly to meet net zero by 2050. Establishing a Net Zero 2035 Challenge Group for Wales is a bold step to dramatically increase the pace of the transition. The pathways the Group puts forward must be met with action next year. Delivery in a period of fiscal strain across government will provide a significant challenge.

The costs and risks of climate change and inequality are clearly felt within Wales. Wales is a nation which is at severe risk from flooding and sea level rises particularly. We are also a nation with more than one in three children growing up in poverty. There are many households in the nation who are struggling to meet spiralling fuel, food and other costs. 

If we take the Doughnut Economics approach, which attempts to transform our economies to ensure that no one falls short of life’s essentials whilst we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems on which we depend, then Wales’ economy is failing. Using this lens, Wales’ economy is both overshooting planetary boundaries whilst also falling through the social baseline floor. As we look to reshape our economy in Wales into one that is successful, green and fair, it is clear that tackling the climate crisis and producing a fairer economy are inextricably interlinked missions.

But in Wales, the current devolution settlement, and just as importantly, how it is being put to work, is failing to deliver the transformative change we need to see. With criss-crossing and intersecting responsibilities shared between Welsh and UK Governments, it is vital that all levels of government use the tools available to speed up our net zero transition, but vitally in a way which reduces inequality, improves living standards and brings sustainable economic opportunity to communities across Wales. This can only be achieved through close collaboration between UK and Welsh Governments, with substantial support from the private and third sectors. In recent years the two governments appear to have been going in different directions. This can’t go on if we are to meet our net zero by 2050 target. The UK is already falling behind in the global race for leadership of the green industries of the future, and with every policy prevarication and lack of investment, the further behind we fall. Decarbonisation is an economic opportunity as much as it is a cost: we would do well to reflect this.

There are lots of lessons from the Oxfam Climate Equality Report for Wales on a global, UK and national level. Yes, in many ways we are going in the right direction in setting ambitious policy. But the delivery is far less impressive. We cannot lose sight of the dual priorities of net zero whilst alleviating inequality and lifting living standards for low-and-middle income households. We cannot repeat the historical mistakes of leaving communities behind as we transition to net zero. The costs of inactivity in this area are catastrophic. The cure must address not merely the climate, but the historical ills of our unbalanced economy.

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Joe Rossiter is the IWA's Co-Director, responsible for the organisation's policy and external affairs.

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