Tackling inequality is vital to achieving Net Zero targets, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change. The authors from Cambridge Univeristy, UK, believe inequalities limit who can realistically adopt low-carbon behaviours.
According to the team, changes are needed to mitigate climate change effectively. Often, people with higher incomes have very large carbon footprints, but they have the means to reduce their carbon footprint more easily than those on lower incomes. There is still a lack of political recognition regarding the barriers that make it difficult for people to adopt more climate-friendly behaviours. The team strongly advocates that policymakers need to provide equal opportunities for low-carbon behaviours across all income brackets of society.
This study defined inequality in different ways: wealth and income, political influence, free time, and access to low-carbon options such as 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 behaviours to reduce carbon emissions,” said Dr. Charlotte Kukowski, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Cambridge Departments of Psychology and Zoology, and first author of the report. “People on lower incomes can be more restricted in the things they can do to help reduce their carbon footprint, in terms of the cost and time associated with doing things differently.”
The researchers analysed how inequalities can restrict people’s capacity to switch to lower-carbon behaviours in many ways, including:
- Insulating a house: this can be extremely expensive, and government subsidies are generally only available for homeowners; those renting the property have little control over the houses they live in. The team calls for appropriate government schemes that allow people in lower income groups to reduce the carbon emissions of their homes.
- Cooking more meat-free meals: despite the popularity, plant-based meat alternatives currently are less affordable than animal products. However, eating more plant-based products is one of the most effective changes people can make in reducing their carbon footprint.
- Buying an electric vehicle or an electric bike: there is a substantial cost to buy these items, and people without permanent employment can’t benefit from tax breaks or financing available through employer schemes.
The overall message is that low-carbon options can be more expensive, making them less accessible to people on lower incomes. “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,” said Dr Emma Garnett, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford and second author of the report. “Interventions targeting high-emitting individuals are urgently needed, but also many areas where there are lower-carbon choices – like food and transport – need everyone to be involved.”
Overall, campaigns to encourage people to switch to lower-carbon behaviours tend to focus on providing information. While this is important to help people understand the problems, it doesn’t remove some of the barriers to making changes. To overcome this issue, the authors suggest a range of policy interventions, such as urban planning to include bus and bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly routes, progressive taxation rates on wealth and income, and employer-subsidised low-carbon meal options.
Kukowski, C.A., Garnett, E.E. Tackling inequality is essential for behaviour change for net zero. Nat. Clim. Chang. 14, 2–4 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-023-01900-4