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Back | Programme Area: Social Policies for Inclusive and Sustainable Development

Climate Change, Double Injustice and Social Policy: A Case Study of the United Kingdom



The groups and populations likely to be most harmed by climate change are the least responsible for causing it and have the least resources to cope with the consequences—this is the "double injustice". It forms the background to climate negotiations between governments representing countries of the North and the South, but it also occurs within nations across the world. In light of this phenomenon, what are the distributional implications of current, fairly ambitious, policies to decarbonize the economy? Based on research within rich countries of the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD), and building specifically on UK studies and data, this question is answered in two parts: within the Kyoto framework and beyond it. This paper complements the author’s Report for the British Council on Climate Change and Public Policy Futures.

The United Kingdom is legally committed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 80 per cent by 2050, compared with the base year of 1990. The European Union has similar collective commitments. These drastic targets are to be implemented via a wide range of carbon mitigation policies (CMPs). This paper considers the social dimension and distributive implications of these policies, and how these might be tackled.

First, the paper finds that many CMPs in the United Kingdom are highly regressive, notably those where energy companies are "obliged" by government to improve energy efficiency and increase renewable energy, the costs to be met by increasing energy prices for domestic and business users. Since energy is a basic good, it comprises a far higher share of spending in lower income households; thus such cost hikes are regressive. CMPs bear more heavily on poorer households.

It is impossible to fully recompense lower income households for these cost increases via social benefits, tax allowances and credits because of the heterogeneity of their circumstances and their dwellings. Thus alternatives are sought on grounds of social justice and/or to prevent sustained political opposition to further carbon mitigation policies.

The only secure route out of this dilemma is to consider additional policies: introducing a special low income price index and "social" energy tariffs which charge less for the first blocks of energy use and more thereafter. The latter would entail reversing the liberalization of energy markets of the past three decades. But the essential policy is a huge increase in "eco-social investment": mass retrofitting of the housing stock and the deployment of radical conservation measures. These might compete fiscally with existing state social expenditures in times of fiscal stringency.

The second part of the paper goes beyond the Kyoto framework to consider total consumption-based emissions within the United Kingdom, including those embodied in imports from the rest of the world. The gap between the two is remarkably wide: the United Kingdom consumes one-third more carbon than it produces and one-half more greenhouse gases (GHGs). With globalization the North has exported a significant part of its GHG emissions to emerging market economies, such as China.

What are the distributional patterns of consumption-based emissions in the United Kingdom and how might they be curbed? This paper presents a new analysis showing that household income is a major driver of emissions per person, alongside household size and employment status. But the income elasticity of emissions is low, so that again they constitute a higher share in low-income households. Thus higher carbon taxes or tighter carbon allowances would again impinge on households in a regressive way: they would bear more heavily on low-income households, single-person households and workless households.

To combat this, the author argues, would require the more explicit integration of climate mitigation and social justice goals. Three radical options are considered: personal carbon allowances and trading, reduced working time, and the taxation of consumption and income. Each raises issues of implementation and knock-on effects, but together they point the way. To combine a green economy with a fair social dimension would entail integrating the redistribution of income, time and carbon.

The double injustice of climate change within developed nations discussed in this paper also has implications for double injustice both between nations on a global scale and within developing nations. At the global level, the faster rate of growth of developing Asia and other emerging market economies over the past two decades, coupled with severe deflationary prospects in much of the North, points to a new era of catch-up and convergence in income levels—relative, if not absolute. This will apply to consumption and emissions too. It will mean that a greater share of the emissions produced in countries such as China will be consumed within their borders, rather than incurred to benefit Northern consumers.

But while inter-national inequality is starting to decline (thus changing the inter-national distribution of emissions), intra-national inequality continues to increase in both poor and rich countries. As China and others prepare to participate in a post-Kyoto institutional framework to regulate GHG emissions, it will be essential to ensure that the burden of carbon and other cuts is not imposed on the poorest. There is therefore a need for further research into the distribution of emissions by income, household composition and other relevant variables within countries in the South, and to model the distributive impacts of various policies to restrain GHG emissions. Such research could draw on the sort of experience in developed economies presented in this paper.

Compared to the conditions of strong economic growth and the export of carbon emissions in which welfare states emerged in the North, today’s world of much slower growth and of rising clamour to correct the emissions deficit will require a profound reshaping of welfare states in the twenty-first century. In sum, social policy would need to be further integrated with carbon mitigation policies, and new forms of policy coherence will be needed.

Ian Gough is Professorial Research Fellow at the London School of Economics, researching climate change and social policy. He is the author of numerous books, including The Political Economy of the Welfare State; A Theory of Human Need; Global Capital, Human Needs and Social Policies; and Insecurity and Welfare Regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America.


This UNRISD Occasional Paper series, produced in collaboration with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) for Rio+20, aims to stimulate debate around the social dimensions of green economy and sustainable development.

For a list of the papers in this series, go to the project page.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 30 Dec 2011
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISBN: 978-9-29-085083-0
    From: UNRISD