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Climate Change and Social Justice

Britain is not Fair. The division between rich and poor is getting wider, and the number of those at the bottom of the stack is rising. This is going to have a significant impact on the ability of people in Great Britain to adapt to Climate Change policy.

Social measures must surely include public investment in de-Carbonising each home. At costs 100 times less than the announced new Nuclear Power programme, and an order of magnitude cheaper than the Carbon Capture and Storage demonstration projects, I think this shows excellent value for money as well as ethical rectitude.

“Middle Britain is not as wealthy as initially perceived as a new survey highlights the true salaries and lifestyles of workers on average incomes. By Myra Butterworth, Personal Finance Correspondent
Published: 27 May 2009 : The report warned that those on middle incomes have lost out sharply compared with better-off professionals and now fear losing their jobs and homes. Median earners had seen their income go up less than average over the last 30 years, increasing by 60 per cent since 1979 compared with rises of 78 per cent for the better off, according to the report by the TUC. Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, said: “For all the talk of middle Britain, those on real middle incomes got left behind under the Conservatives, were left out of Labour’s boom that has now busted into recession, and are now fearing for their jobs and homes as unemployment bites.”

“Britain: Income inequality at record high : By Barry Mason : 4 June 2009 : Last month the government quietly published the latest measure of income inequality, the Gini coefficient, for the UK. The figure tells a story of growing exploitation and mounting poverty in Britain…The contrast between rich and poor is even starker when the mean or arithmetical average is considered. The mean earnings figure for 2007-08 was £487 a week. It is calculated that 65 percent of the population earn less than this sum.”

Those who talk in averages call the United Kingdom a developed nation, a rich nation, a country with high levels of wealth and personal resources.

But this is just not the reality for the majority of its citizens.

Energy is relatively cheap, and it’s a good thing too, as people find it hard to move from their usual pattern of energy consumption.

When people hear about Carbon pricing, they are concerned, as their lives would be so much harder if Energy becomes more expensive.

And the majority of people, those at and below the median levels of income and Energy expenditure, they are not the heaviest consumers of anything, and they are already using less than the average (mean) :-

When the Government urges voluntary behaviour change, communicating that each one of us should “Act on CO2”, this is a dense and unworkable message.

People have got other things in their lives to worry about besides Energy, and they have no idea how to cut their Energy consumption cheaply.

People are famously over-optimistic about Do It Yourself home maintenance, even rolling out loft insulation.

And a good 30% of the UK population don’t own the home they live in, and so do not necessarily have permission to change the building fabric.

On top of all that, it’s hard to recruit affordable installation engineers who you can have confidence in, to help you reduce your Energy consumption.

It’s no wonder that people do not respond in their millions.

It seems likely that the international Climate Change negotiations at Copenhagen in December will settle on a treaty with a heavy Carbon Trading component, making a negatively-valued commodity out of Carbon Dioxide emissions.

It is inevitable that this will result in higher Energy prices, and for the poor in every nation, including the developed nations, this will be an unwelcome burden.

Added to that, the annually reducing Carbon Cap that is the other half of the “Cap and Trade” concept that gives us Carbon Trading, will in effect cause Energy Rationing. The nation as a whole will only be permitted to cause a capped amount of Carbon Emissions, and this will automatically restrict the use of Energy.

So, for the underprivileged there will be a “double whammy” : more expensive Energy, and rationing of Energy. For those households who cannot organise themselves and their homes to use less Energy, owing to financial and practical problems, this will only add to their deprivation.

At the conference “The politics of climate change : from economic crisis to business revolution” on Friday 5th June 2009, I heard several speakers outline some of the Social Justice problems with Climate Change policy.

John Hills, Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics, made the astute observation that “taxes are regressive”, that is that they unfairly penalise the less well-off. “If you reduce income tax and promote a Carbon tax, that’s also regressive”, as people’s Energy use is not directly proportional to their income.

“There is an argument for “targetted compensation””, he said, “but even if you put every single p [penny] into compensation you still have low income losers, 1) because those instruments are not perfect – means-tested benefits do not have 100% take-up and 2) there is a huge spread of consumption in low-income households, for example [some have high] transport costs [to get to work].”

John Hills pointed out that “15% of the poorest were losers in the “progressive” tax regime change that cut the 10p tax band.”

“Maybe there’s not much we can do ? There is a limit to what we can add to means-testing. As for offsets [offsetting the extra Carbon costs with tax or benefits returned], you can’t spend the same money four times over. You can’t spend Carbon tax revenues on energy efficiency, low income transfers, household adapatation and mitigation measures.”

In other words, if a Carbon Tax is applied, there is a choice about how to spend the Revenue, but it cannot be used to invest in Renewable Energy infrastructure and domestic Energy Efficiency, and at the same time be used to compensate the poor for their extra Energy costs.

For John Hills, this implies that (a) the politics are more difficult. There’s less money left over to make the measures more palatable for the “median voter”. “Even the best compensation package has holes in it.”

For John Hills, a “reflation package would have wanted a “Decent Homes (2)” scheme. These redistributions shouldn’t be an afterthought. [We] need to build in social policy design at the start.”

He concluded with a notable quotable : “Carbon cost capture and recycling is as problematic as Carbon Capture and Storage.”

Rebecca Willis of the Sustainable Development Commission took aim at what she called the “substitution and efficiency paradigm”, and explained that it will not be possible to assume that substituting alternative Energy sources and making everything hyper efficient will be enough. She took issue with people that made out that they were going to continue to fly and drive as they have before.

“Climate Change is political”, she said, “there is a seismic political shift [happening]…All three main parties have agreed to set environmental limits. That’s an incredible start…[that] all parties agreed [that] an 80% cut in emissions by 2050 is in the UK’s best interests…[but that’s come at a] cost of propagating a dangerous myth that you can do all this without [any significant impact].”

She referred back to the speech that Stelios Haji-Ioannou (chief of EasyJet) had made in the main meeting, where he claimed that travel is a good thing; and she mentioned Oliver Letwin’s (Conservative Party strategist) personal statement in another conference (or interview) defending his right to drive : “I like to go places”. She said that people were being offered the idea that Low Carbon alternatives could be made for everything. She said that it seemed it was thought that unless everyone buys into this myth of “substitution and efficiency”, that it will be too difficult for political movement.

She mentioned a report that her colleague Tim Jackson had prepared with the title “Prosperity without Growth ?”, where the question mark was deliberate. They had wanted to call the report something more challenging, but they had been advised that if they had the UK Government Finance Department, the Treasury, would not have opened it.

She explained that there is a problem discussing growth. In Tim Jackson’s work, he took reasonable figures for growth in population (9 billion) and the Economy (2% growth year on year), and calculated that we would need to go from 770 grammes of Carbon emitted per unit of productivity/output now to around 6 grammes in 2050.

She said that for all the speakers of the day so far, they were effectively claiming that 6 times as much output could be possible from the same dollar of oil. She pointed out that the amount of Renewable Energy that would be needed to do this would be immense. She cited the work of Professor David Mackay of Cambridge and his book “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air”, and his calculations on the Renewable Energy required to maintain current consumption.

Rebecca Willis said that owing to the content of the recent publications by the Sustainable Development Commission, they were now seen as “dangerous radicals” by the UK Government, even though all their work is evidence-based and entirely reliable. She said that “we won’t meet the targets with this paradigm of substitution and efficiency”.

She said that “Carbon will get more and more expensive – we simply can’t provide enough Carbon-free Energy as people want. We are talking about profound social and economic change.” She said that it was useful to see it in terms of social justice, and she spoke about the pragmatic, cheap solutions. “Everything you do to sort out the existing system is socially and economically more viable.”

“In transport : [we must ask] is the car the solution to all our problems ? Home energy use : look to the Isle of Eigg [in Scotland] and their micro grid. There is a 5 kilowatt limit on each household. They collectively agreed to cap electricity consumption. You couldn’t begin to have that debate on the “mainland”. Maybe we should start talking about how much Carbon we can live with.”

Rebecca Willis bemoaned the way that the main speakers of the morning had used such negative language when talking about cutting Energy consumption. Stelios Haji-Ioannou had said that we’re not going to go and live in caves. And she recalled that Oliver Letwin had whinged about being on his own in his library, cold and hungry. Rebecca asked “Can we start looking at all the positive range in between “substitution and efficiency” and “cavemen” ?”

Frances Graham from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) substituted for Andy Atkins. She said we should be aware that she had boosted the voice of women by 100% at the conference !

“This morning there was a remarkable lack of discussion on a new politics”, she said, “[yet] politics has got us into this mess. There has been no discussion on the Global North and the Global South and the distribution of “pain and gain”. [We need] some kind of consensus about how we get there and who bears the burden.”

She unpacked the current employment situation and explained there were ongoing massive job losses in such areas as construction and in industry. “Our immediate concern is near-term”, she explained – the labour-intensive nature of proposals for investing in Green Energy and Energy Efficiency. She talked of the need for a Just Transition – “it matters who wins, who loses and how we get there.”

Frances Graham said “We need a revitalisation of democracy”. She was “surprised” by the main speakers “talking of us as consumers – not as citizens. Terry Leahy [the Chief Executive Officer for Tesco] didn’t talk about the workforce as having a voice. Climate Change can’t be done to workers or to people, but with us.”

She talked about social policy trends – where “people have been made more responsible for our own pensions, our own care [in old age], our own adult children living at home, and paying for all of this through home ownership.”

She explained that the Trades Union Congress is “looking for a big green economic stimulus”, and indicated that the collaboration of trades unions and workers was already contributing. “We’ve done lots of mitigation and adaptation in work places. Union representatives are working on environmental programmes in work places.”

She recalled the 1976 Lucas Aerospace plan – to diversify from mostly military products. They were facing big job cuts and they came up with an alternative plan. Everybody was involved in the plan. “They came up with ideas such as solar and fuel cells – new forms of windmill – small power packs – fuel efficient engines – they came up with what they wanted to produce. They wanted meaningful work making socially useful goods. It was totally lost. I hope we don’t repeat this mistake. I hope we can unleash fair and democratic change.”

One reply on “Climate Change and Social Justice”

In terms of providing insulation have you seen what Kirklees council have been doing. It does so many of the things you are talking about. It provides local jobs, makes it easy for the locals to get proper insulation without having to pay for it.

Google searches such as Kirklees Council insulation will give more info.


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