Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Who are the one percent super polluters ?

Our starting point for this article: We needed to reduce our emissions by 18% a year, beginning in 2019. Of course, we now know that this is not what actually happened in 2019 so we now need to reduce our emissions even more steeply beginning in 2020. This will not be achieved by any easy measures which allow us, i.e. the relatively rich people who live in developed nations, to carry on our lives as usual, consuming more and more each year. We cannot rely upon negative emissions because the technology to achieve this does not exist.
In October 2018 we received the IPCC's latest report on climate change which gave us 12 years to turn around our behaviour to preserve conditions on the planet which are compatible with human life.  Soon afterward I noted that life carried on as usual immediately after this news as if everyone was waiting for everyone else to take steps. We now know that 2019's emissions, far from being the 18% lower than those of 2018 required to start to tackle the biggest problem that mankind has ever faced, were actually the highest ever recorded (while power sector only energy emissions, where small drops were balanced by rises in others, barely changed from 2018).

Our lack of action last years means, of course, that we now have to take even more drastic steps than were required a year ago. You can see what is required in the graph above. The red lines become steeper for each year that we wait before we take action. We now need to reduce our emissions not by just 18% per year but by more than 20% each year. Can we we do this ? Will we start to try to save ourselves ? Will I be back here in a year's time with the same message once again ?

Source: Oxfam
Who are the 1% richest ? The answer may surprise you.
It's quite well accepted that the richest people on the planet cause the most emissions. It's quite obvious why this is the case: the more that people earn, the more they spend and the more they consume. Higher income results in higher consumption and higher consumption results in higher emissions. Some products are more harmful than others, but anything extra that we buy has an impact.

There is a great inequality built into climate change. Half of all climate changing emissions result from the behaviour of the richest 10% of the population of the planet. The effects of the resultant climate change are, however, mostly felt by those who had little or no impact, with 99% of casualties so far being in developing countries.

If you earn over $32400 per year you make up part of the left-most
green bar - the super polluters who produce more than 10x the global
average emissions. If you earn less than that but more than $13700 then
you're in the next highest column - with about 5x average emissions.
If we go beyond the richest 10% and look at the richest 1% of the population then we find ourselves focusing on a truly elite group of people. The 1% are the "super polluters", earning vastly more than the average person, consuming vastly more and with an environmental footprint which is also vastly higher than the average. As you can see from the graph left, the impact of the 1% is more than 10x greater than average. These super consumers are disproportionately responsible for climate changing emissions.

Now comes the part which may surprise many readers of this blog. You are almost certainly in the 10% and you're quite likely to be one of the truly elite top 1%. You may not feel like a member of the elite and this may initially sound hyperbolic, but only 1% of the world's population earns more than $32400 per year so if your annual income is higher than US$32400 (equivalent to about 30000 euros or 25000 UK pounds) per year then you are in fact a member of the exclusive 1% club. i.e. in comparison with 99% of the world's population, you are the elite. If your annual salary is less than this, but still more than about $13700 (€12600 / 10500 pounds), then you're still in the top 10%. i.e. even people who earn minimum wage in many nations are still part of the top 10%.

How will we answer future generations' questions?
What to do if you realise you're part of the 1%
How should we react to this revelation ? To my mind it is clear that the people who can do most to reduce climate changing emissions are those whose emissions are highest in the first place. i.e. the elite few who earn in the top 1% or top 10% worldwide.

If we know that we're part of the group then we have a responsibility to do something. If people who are part of that group, who have choices in their behaviour and who are amongst the highest earners and highest emitters on this planet, can't be convinced or convince themselves to cut down on their consumption in order to emit less carbon, who then can we convince ?

Isn't it better to push someone else to make cuts?
Of course, the problems faced won't be solved by a few individuals acting alone. We actually need many individuals to recognise their part in this problem and act. Even then, if all the 1% eradicated all their emissions (perhaps by the "eat the rich" meme becoming reality) even that wouldn't eliminate more than at most about a fifth of the emissions. i.e. "eat the rich" as a policy would achieves just one year's worth of reduced emissions. But the rich are still personally responsible for a disproportionately large part of the problem so while they should use their voices to campaign for governments and big businesses alike to take action to control their emissions, and they should try to ensure that such things as pension funds are invested in ways such that they result in low or zero emissions (even if this might mean a lower pension), they also need to remember that it is only the relatively rich who even have such things as pension funds and given the extraordinary size of emissions per comparatively rich person they do have a responsibility to tackle the problem that they are causing.

For us to see a 20% annual reduction in emissions we need a change in the patterns of consumption of the richest people on the planet because anything else places far too much of a burden on the people who have the least to lose. If the richest 1-10% remain the biggest supporters of large polluting companies, the most enthusiastic consumers of steadily more of the planet destroying products made by those companies, happily consuming reassuring marketing greenwash from those companies while also continuing to buy their products, then they really have to take a good proportion of the blame for those products destroying the world on which we live.

We won't be able to do this without targeting consumers, especially the big consumers. The elite group who are lucky enough to have choices can change their behaviour and their doing so will make a disproportionate difference.

There is no way out of this without taking some personal responsibility. To reduce emissions we need to consume less. We probably also need to earn less to achieve this because as we've seen, people who can use their discretionary spending to consume and emit more than people who have fewer choices. We cannot rely upon rich philanthropists who otherwise pay very little tax deciding how much of their wealth they will give away and what should be funded. That does not result in an fair society. A tax system which reallocates wealth more equitably has to be part of any attempt to tackle the climate change.

How can it be ethical to hold onto a pattern of income and consumption which we know harms others ?

Leaving the club
I'd never ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn't. Personally, I left the 1% club on purpose nearly 20 years ago by choosing a different way of living. Initially I asked to work three days a week at my existing job, but this request was rejected so I stopped working in software development and did something else instead. I left the 10% club more recently, this step coming a little sooner than expected due to politics elsewhere.

Having a lower income does not necessarily mean living badly.

Those who are lucky enough to have a choice can in many cases make a decision to earn and consume less without any adverse effect on their lifestyle. For instance, opting to work four or three days a week in an existing job results in less income and lower consumption. It also means lower emissions because you spend less, and has the positives of less commuting and an extra 52 days of free time every year. Who wouldn't want that extra time to themselves ? Reducing one's income and stepping out of the 1% gives it to you.

Is there such a thing as "good" consumption?
We have a green self-image, but these things only help us to
reduce emissions if they're part of a pattern of lowered
consumption and we don't compensate by spending and
emitting more
in other parts of our lives.
Not all consumption has the same effect of course. For instance, spending money on things like far better insulation results in a short term increase in emissions due to the embedded carbon in the product but reduces energy consumption and resultant emissions by a far greater amount in the longer term. It also makes your home more economical and more pleasant to live in. Similarly, installing solar panels costs about as much as buying a second hand car but instead of resulting in years of expense and emissions it results in years of lowered costs and emissions. Both these examples are of things which may be difficult to afford initially on a lower income but afterwards they make life on a low income both easier and more pleasant. However this only works if it really results in a reduction in consumption. If what we saved by insulating our home is used for some other activity, such as travel or maintaining a high consumption of more or less any other product, then our emissions will remain high. A high income is a problem in and of itself: If a saving is made in one place, it will probably lead to more being spent elsewhere.

Of course this blog has generally had transport and cycling as a subject. Living car free results in instantly lowered costs and emissions. The most efficient vehicle on the planet is you using your own muscles to push the pedals of a bicycle. The bicycle is not only a very inexpensive form of transport which is compatible with living a lifestyle of lower consumption and lower emissions but also improves your well-being. Working fewer days per week leaves more time to enjoy it. But the task ahead of us enormous. Merely riding a bike a bit isn't enough.

6 comments:

  1. Luckily there are more ways to achieve comfortable lifestyle and reduce consumption at the same time. Most important one is probably to move from suburban house to urban flat. Urban person generally has less need for moving around daily, so oil-burning for mobility reasons gets strongly reduced. Also, flats use much less energy for warming and heating than stand-alone houses, and that's another important consumption-reduction.

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  2. Zmau: I'm not convinced that encouraging people to live in urban flats is automatically a good idea.

    I'm not against the idea of flats. We're actually in the lucky position of owning two homes, a house and a flat, both buildings being of similar ages and construction methods. There's a stark difference in what we've been able to achieve with the two properties: While we've been able to do anything we wanted with the house to improve its efficiency and so we have done all those things, with enormous gains as a result, the same is not true at all of the flat because we don't have full control over it. Instead, all changes have to be brought up in meetings, agreed with all other owners, have to fit everyone's budgets at the same time and all work has to be carried out by particular contractors which further raise the price thus making it less likely that any particular piece of work will be done. The result is that little can be done to improve energy efficiency in the flat. It's difficult to do more than such things as changing the light bulbs in communal areas of the flats (this is a real example which came up for the third year running in the annual meeting of the owners association last night). Flats have the potential be more energy efficient because there is no air gap between neighbours so no heat loss there, but in practice our house is twice the size of the flat but consumes less energy. That's both gas for heating and also less electricity: We have solar panels on the roof of our house which generate more electricity than we use, but unfortunately no-one has been able to work out a mutually agreeable way to place solar panels on the roof of the apartment block so it's not happened there.

    Now there are opportunities for flats to become more efficient and we've an interesting example about one km from our home which over a couple of years was converted into a "zero on the meter" building. This project was given a substantial subsidy which will never have to be repaid, but the process of renovation went way over budget costing almost the value of each apartment per apartment. As a result, rather than reducing the monthly service costs (which include centralized heating), those costs have almost doubled and each resident now has to find over €300 to pay as service costs on top of their rent / mortgage.

    Personally, I like living as I do in a house in "the 'burbs". We have plenty of space, we can do such things as grow some of our own food, our dog is less likely to annoy the neighbours and because we have the freedom to work on our own home in any way we like, we have been able to reduce its energy consumption to the point where it is considerably lower than even the average small flat in this country.

    We of course live without a car. What's more, because we're only 2.5 km from the city centre we don't live far enough away to get enough exercise from everyday activities. Being closer to the centre would not be helpful to us. Due to the short distances that we have now we already actually have to cycle more than for daily needs alone merely to get enough exercise to stay healthy.

    BTW, demolishing buildings and starting again can result in lower emissions once their built, but the enormous environmental cost of pouring concrete to do this means that it's almost certainly more environmentally damaging than renovating an existing building.

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  3. It seems shortsighted to quit your job. You could have kept your job and donated your excess salary to poverty related Charities. Global poverty kills millions every year so giving up the opportunity to donate money to bring people above $2 a day is effectively letting people die.

    Consuming less is a good idea, but quiting your job is not the right way to do this.

    https://80000hours.org/

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  4. I was expecting such an answer. All that you wrote is truth for your case, but you are serious enthusiast. Most people are not such enthusiasts, and most of them (including even me) would perform better in an environment with better starting performance, and less need for upgrade.

    So, let this dialog serve as invitation for each reader to think about what's optimal solution in her/his particular case :). One thing is for sure : use existing buildings, don't buy/construct new ones.

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  5. Dan: Whether remaining in a well paid job for a company which probably also has a high carbon footprint while sending money to the poor actually achieves the aim of taking people permanently out of poverty is something I'm not entirely convinced of, but giving a proportion of your income to charity is of course laudable. Many people do of course already this.

    Your link is to an organisation which according to their website "started in 2011" and is aimed at people aged 20-35. I was having these ideas more than ten years before that. It was in 2003 when I was already nearly 40 when I stopped working in software, not to stop doing anything at all but to do more worthwhile things with my time.

    For instance, by the time I changed what I did I had already given up many summer holidays to do cycle promotion work around the UK and I was already planning the cycling study tours which we operated between 2006 and 2018 (i.e. before anyone else was doing the same). I also created the first cycling infrastructure youtube videos to encourage good practice and I've spent many years and many thousands of hours providing information here, for free, about what actually works to encourage people to cycle as well as pointing out where things do not work so well in the Netherlands. Unfortunately that effort has now been swamped by people who paint an eternally rose tinted view, in which everything documented this week is more wonderful than everything that was discussed last week - some funded by the Dutch government. This is an export opportunity after all.

    I also worked for a while for a company which makes one of the most efficient vehicles on the planet and helped some old colleagues with their smart meter design, which of course we all hope will help people to monitor and reduce their consumption of energy.

    Anyway, it remains my view that changing what you do is very much the right thing to do for many people. No-one needs more of everything all the time. Greed was one of the seven deadly sins for a reason - we're seeing the result of this worldwide now. It really is leading to "not just some, but all evil" (I'm an atheist BTW).

    We need to reduce consumption amongst the people who consume most. That's really the most important thing any of us can do and it's the reason why I wrote the blog post above. It remains my view that people redeploying themselves from well paid but less important work to more satisfying but less well paid work, or even less of the same work, is one of the best things any of us can do for the planet.

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  6. zmau: Yes, I agree that I'm a "serious enthusiast" compared with most. However, every house on our street has had at least one upgrade in the time we've lived here and most have had several. We have watched as our neighbours installed insulation in their walls and under the floor, as windows have been upgraded, as solar panels also arrived on about half of the neighbour's roofs. I doubt that any of the neighbours have energy bills as low as ours, but I could be wrong about that.

    Of course not everything is positive. It's also the case that many more cars have been bought and that because most people buy a lot of stuff they also throw away a lot and most manage to fill up their bins (we have little in ours). However I don't think those aspects would be very different if our neighbours lived in flats.

    As I said before, I'm not against the idea of flats at all. They do offer potentially higher energy efficiency. However I don't think it's all one way or the other. We're likely to have a mix of types of housing and types of ownership forever and we're both agreed that demolishing and rebuilding likely does more harm than good in the long run. The Netherlands is particularly bad from that point of view, BTW. Many buildings don't last more than 50 years or so, and some are demolished even sooner. Our railway station was replaced after less than 30 years, for instance.

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