A habitable Earth can no longer afford the rich – and that could mean me and you


A few days ago I was commissioned by the energy and environment section editor at The Conversation to elaborate on my contribution to the recent Guardian article, “Who are the polluter elite?”.

After a few minor edits and references, my expanded text was approved and I was advised that it would go online within a few hours. An hour later, the section editor called to tell me, rather awkwardly, that The Conversation’s senior editor had pulled the piece at the last minute, claiming it was “too polemical”. Unfortunately, the senior editor didn’t elaborate on their judgement (or contact me directly), so I can only guess that they were uncomfortable with my direct language and reference to the “generally supine media” – concerns all too easily hidden behind the façade of “too polemical”.

The energy and environment editor, with whom I had very constructively engaged, encouraged me to publish the piece wherever I could. So here is the piece in question as it was to have been published in The Conversation.

A habitable Earth can no longer afford the rich – and that could mean me and you

For a flip-of-a-coin chance of staying at or below 1.5°C we have, globally, just five to eight years of current emissions before we blow our carbon budget [1]. For a good chance of 2°C this extends to 15 to 18 years [2]. We are using up the 1.5°C budget at a rate of about 1% each month, and the 2°C budget at around 0.5% each month.

But it’s not being spent evenly. According to new research by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, the wealthiest 1% of people on the planet are responsible for double the greenhouse gas emissions of the poorest half [3].

This 1% of humanity uses its awesome power to manipulate societal aspirations and the narratives around climate change. These extend from well-funded advertising to pseudo-technical solutions, from the financialisation of carbon emissions (and increasingly, nature) to labelling extreme any meaningful narrative that questions inequality and power.

This dangerous framing is compounded by a generally supine media owned or controlled by the 1%. Many climate experts also reside in the 1% or seek funding from them, with the dangerous repercussion of giving the impression of objective conclusions. Add to this the reflected glory of hobnobbing with the elites and the prestige of honours awarded to those supporting hierarchical norms – and the closure of alternative narratives for addressing climate change is complete.

This may all sound flippant. But I argue that the tendrils of the 1% have twisted society into something deeply self-destructive. Layer upon of layer of lies and delusion have left us ill-equipped to address so many of our problems, of which climate change is only one symptom.

‘Sensible’ has failed

There is now as big a disparity in carbon emissions within countries as there is between them [4].

To meaningfully reduce carbon inequality between nations requires a genuine desire to meet the Paris Agreement’s commitments among national leaders. In the absence of that, we’re just fiddling while Rome – and now many other places – burns.

Assuming such a desire existed, limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C would become a straightforward rationing issue, with the real challenge being how to apportion a tight and rapidly shrinking carbon budget between nations.

The current approach of countries volunteering pledges to cut emissions (officially referred to as “nationally determined contributions”, or NDCs) is a sham. A politically workable sham, but one that physics is indifferent to. Such poker-playing between nations with hugely disproportionate expertise, facilities and personnel will not deliver an effective solution. Trust, fairness and innovative thinking are key if we are to make a timely response to this escalating tragedy of the commons.

Perhaps lead negotiators need to negotiate not for their home nation, but for another: China negotiates for South Africa, the EU for Japan, Egypt for the US, the US for India. Sounds more like a party game than serious people being serious about climate change. But a third of a century on from the first IPCC report and three decades since the first negotiations, emissions in 2023 will be over 60% higher – and still rising [5].

“Sensible” approaches have failed and are set to fail again. With a cumulative problem like climate change, the challenge is relentless. Claims of small steps forward are nothing more than shallower strides backwards.

The Paris Agreement’s targets are one-third of a trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide more distant now than they were in 2015 [6]. We are failing hour by hour, day after day, year on year and one decade after another. We need to try something very different if we’re to escape this Groundhog Day.

Carbon triage

If leaders could agree a way to divvy up the remaining Paris-compliant carbon budget between countries the next challenge would be doing it within nations.  

This is again a matter of rationing: how should the national carbon budget be divided between its citizens and sectors? Here there is no universally correct approach – each nation has its own blend of cultures, geographies and socio-economic characteristics.

A fee and dividend approach (carbon tax with revenue distributed equally between citizens) may work in the EU, but not the US. Stringent regulations may work in China and Scandinavian countries, but not Italy and India. Tight emission standards and voluntary agreements may be important in the UK but not Kenya.

What is clear is that, for all countries, a rapid response to climate change demands a fundamental reallocation of that society’s productive capacity, its labour and resources. Three decades of failure have removed any wriggle room.

Our commitments to 1.5°C and 2°C demand that existing houses and buildings be transformed, that public transport, walking and cycling be the main modes of moving in cities, perhaps with small pools of rented electric vehicles in rural areas, that our energy supply rapidly become electrified, from around 20% today [7] to nearer 90% by 2040 – and all of it generated without fossil fuels.

Fast international travel will, at least temporarily, have to be for urgent or emergency purposes only. A triage approach is needed to ensure that the reallocation of society’s small carbon budget, its labour and resources, are used wisely to provide for a thriving society.

Almost by definition this would significantly alleviate poverty, as society’s resources will need to move from furnishing the relative luxuries of people like me (along with Elon Musk and Bill Gates) and be mobilised to decarbonise every facet of society. And all this in two decades tops.

Once decarbonisation is complete, then, if it is considered desirable, rampant inequality can again be pursued, as it clearly is today. But between now and then, inequality is the main obstacle to getting anywhere near our Paris commitments.

A polluting elite or a liveable climate

If the situation continues to deteriorate, who will feed and protect the elite? Who will care for, feed and protect those feeding and protecting the elite? The same elites stoking the climate crisis are reliant on the system that it is unravelling – without it, they do not exist.

Away from the rhetorical flourishes acted out at UN climate summits and other high-level shindigs, there are very few leaders who appear to grasp the urgency of this situation. Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, is perhaps one exception, and certainly there are some politicians (although usually not ministers) who demonstrate the necessary compassion, intellect and integrity.

But, with few exceptions, the crop of incumbents is too close to the fossil fuel industry and financiers or simply floundering out of their depth (Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer come to mind).

For me at least, leadership is a messy partnership of bottom-up and top-down action. We should not wait for the latter to show the way. Set against relentless failures to address climate change, and an international arena dominated by the callous and the inept, a shard of light is offered by the axiom often attributed to Antonio Gramsci: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”.


[1] The eight years value is based on the IPCC’s remaining headline carbon budget for a 50% chance of not exceeding 1.5°C, updated to today. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_Chapter05.pdf P753 Table 5.8

The five year estimate is from the latest Lamboll et al carbon budget paper published in Nature Climate Change earlier this month:  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-023-01848-5 – again using the 50% of chance of not exceeding 1.5°C

Current global CO2 is taken as ~40GtCO2 (energy + LULUCF) from the Global Carbon Atlas – a reputable and peer-reviewed source from the Global Carbon Project

Divide the Lamboll and IPCC remaining budgets by current emissions of ~40GtCO2, and we have around 5 to 8 years of current CO2 emissions remaining. 

[2] As above, but using the IPCC and Lamboll carbon budgets for an 83% chance of not exceeding 2°C.

[3] Joint report by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/climate-equality-a-planet-for-the-99-621551/

With just slightly different numbers from slightly different methods, similar conclusions are drawn in the peer reviewed paper literature, e.g. Lucas Chancel, 2022, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-022-00955-z.


Again, this is not a new argument – Chancel and Piketty made a similar case in their 2015 Carbon Inequality report, http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/ChancelPiketty2015.pdf

[5] Global Carbon Atlas & the Global Carbon Project – not a number that is disputed.

[6] As above [5]. I summed the values in their front-end tool, checked it against their accompanying spread sheet, and then added estimates for 2022 & 2023 values (for this calculation, essentially the same as the 2021)

[7] https://yearbook.enerdata.net/electricity/share-electricity-final-consumption.html.
Though, to be pedantic, their national numbers are likely a little too high, as I don’t think they are considering international aviation and shipping emissions (bunker fuels). Nevertheless, this is an adequate reference.