The IPCC published its sixth assessment report last year, confirming that the climate crisis is unequivocally caused by human activities and is unequivocally affecting every corner of the planet’s land, air and sea already, and that we will reach a temperature rise 1.5C in the next two decades, while we can only prevent further rises through “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions” in emissions, of which there is no sign to date. The report catalogues the disastrous impacts of each degree increase in global temperatures, many of which we are already starting to see, including extreme flooding and droughts, wildfires, rising ocean levels and disruptions to global food supplies, and parts of the globe becoming uninhabitable by humans, as well as laying out the increasing risks of tipping points. The report makes clear that the people in richer countries like the UK will be severely affected, even if those living in developing countries will bear the brunt of the most severe consequences.
A recent analysis suggests that ‘business-as-usual’ will result in economic and industrial growth slowing down, stopping and then declining rapidly from about 2040, leading to significant declines in food production, industrial output and human welfare and potentially to social collapse well before the end of this century.
Impacts of air pollution
Air pollution is cutting short the lives of billions of people by up to six years, according to a new report, making it a far greater killer globally than smoking, car crashes or HIV/AIDS. A 2019 study found that, despite over ten years of air quality policy, inequality in exposure to traffic-related air pollution has widened, and that while young children, young adults, and households in poverty have the highest levels of exposure to air pollution, it is the richer households who are more responsible for it. An evidence review by UCL found that deprived communities continue to suffer disproportionately from pedestrian deaths, pollution and isolation which can result from living near busy roads.
Access to nature
41% of species have declined in the UK since 1970, and today we are one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth. Meanwhile, the COVID pandemic has brought home how green spaces are vital for our physical and mental health. Yet the poorest and most marginalised have the least access to parks and gardens, and children are growing up in a world where nature is harder to find. Adults in the lowest income groups spend the least time in nature.
Costs of net zero
The costs of decarbonising our economy are not evenly shared across society. Low-carbon policies, such as renewable energy subsidies, household retrofit and installation of smart meters, add an additional 13% to household energy bills. Given that the lowest income households spend 10% of their income on heating and powering their homes, whereas the highest spend less than 1.5%, any increase in prices hits the poor more. As a result, low-income households pay disproportionately more towards low-carbon policy costs (the poorest 5% of households spend over 1% of household income on low-carbon policies, compared to an average of 0.4%).
Inequality also leads to unfair sharing of the burden of risk of environmental disasters such as flooding. For example, local authorities often come under pressure to turn a blind eye to flood-risk maps in order to permit thousands of “affordable” homes to be built for those priced out of higher ground.
There is strong public support for more rapid and decisive action by government to achieve net zero. The Green Alliance found that 62% of people want to see increased government spending on environmental issues and 59% support changes to the tax system that make environmentally damaging behaviour more expensive and help people and businesses do the right thing. Bright Blue found high levels of support for a range of government policies for achieving net zero, including requiring firms that work for government to assess and report on their carbon footprint (66%), providing tax breaks for businesses which have cut emissions (59%), introducing a carbon tax (52%), taxing investment in fossil fuels (51%), establishing a new emissions trading scheme for businesses (50%) and installing smart meters in all homes and businesses (49%), as well as strong support for providing subsidies for low-income households. There is public support for radical action by government, as long as it meets two key tests: firstly, that it is necessary, and secondly, that it is fair.