How tackling climate change could tackle inequality

Floods in Fort-de-France, Martinique, after it was hit by Hurricane Maria. Image: Getty.

Inequality is one of the great challenges of this age, and one that will only be exacerbated by climate change. Most pronounced is the problem in cities, where skyscrapers may tower over slums and street vendors hustle outside air-conditioned supermarkets.

But new research has revealed that taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within cities could be one of the great levellers, with the largest social and economic benefits enjoyed by the poor

Energy use alone is responsible for nearly three quarters of global greenhouse emissions, and most energy is consumed by the rich: to drive their cars, heat their buildings and manufacture goods such as refrigerators, air conditioners and televisions – all of which then demand more energy throughout their lifetime. Globally, the wealthiest ten per cent of people may be responsible for more than 50 per cent of emissions.

Though high-income households bear more responsibility for climate change, its most severe impacts will be felt by the poor, who are more likely to live in areas exposed to environmental hazards, such as floodplains or steep slopes, and whose homes may also lack basic infrastructure that might reduce the impacts of extreme weather, such as drains to safely carry away storm-water. Then, in the aftermath of natural disasters, it is the poorest in society who struggle to access the financial resources they need to rebuild their homes and lives, turning a storm into a catastrophe.

But vulnerability to climate change is not just a function of low incomes. Women, for instance, are less likely than men to know how to swim or to be reachable through conventional emergency warning systems, which puts them at greater risk in the event of a flood or storm.

Climate change can therefore compound existing inequalities, further widening the chasm between rich and poor, powerful and powerless.

Having reviewed over 700 studies on transport, buildings and waste management, the research team fom the Coalition for Urban Transitions found that choosing low-carbon options would not only improve public health, create jobs, enhance productivity and cut energy bills, but that many of the gains would be mostly enjoyed by low-income urban residents. Those most vulnerable to climate change are therefore also those who would benefit most from climate action.


Consider outdoor air pollution, which causes around 4.2 million deaths every year, and asthma, bronchitis and other chronic diseases for millions more. This burden of ill-health is overwhelmingly borne by low-income urban dwellers, who more frequently live in polluted areas along highways or near power plants, and are more likely to work outdoors as street vendors, labourers or waste collectors.

Producing electricity from renewables instead of coal, making vehicles more energy efficient, and shifting to lower-carbon fuels for heating and cooking can cut both pollutants and carbon emissions. Since the poor suffer the most from toxic air, they also enjoy the greatest health improvements.

Or consider road safety. More than 1.25 million people die every year from traffic accidents. 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries and nearly half are pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists. Many of these people cannot afford a car or even public buses, but face a terrible risk on every trip. Women may face additional constraints, as cultural norms and additional physical risks often deter them from cycling or walking freely around the city.

Segregated walkways and bike lanes are essential to keeping pedestrians and cyclists safe, and the provision of street lighting and street furniture such as benches can further enhance people’s safety by turning the pavements into a place where people want to be. It’s those who are unable to afford any other means of travel that benefit the most, and at the same time, these measures can reduce greenhouse gases by establishing non-motorised transport as a safe, enjoyable way to commute.

The costs of air pollution and road accidents are immense, and overwhelmingly borne by the poor. People are dying because they cannot breathe easily or move safely within cities. This new paper shows that there are opportunities to tackle these everyday inequalities, and simultaneously reduce the risk of dangerous global warming.

Ambitious climate action can therefore lay the foundations for healthier, safer and more equal cities for decades to come.

Sarah Colenbrander is Head of Global Programmes at the Coalition for Urban Transitions and Senior Researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development. Andrew Sudmant is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, and one of the authors of The Economic and Social Benefits of Low-carbon Cities – A Systematic Review of the Evidence.

 
 
 
 

In a world of autonomous vehicles, we’ll still need walking and cycling routes

A Surrey cycle path, 1936 style. Image: Getty.

The CEO of Sustrans on the limits of technology.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way we own, use and power our means of transportation. The mobility revolution is shifting from an “if” to a “where” and when”.

There are two different futures currently being imagined. First up, a heaven, of easy mobility as portrayed by autonomous vehicle (AV) manufacturers, with shared-use AV freeing up road space for public spaces and accidents reduced to near zero. Or alternatively, a hellish, dystopian pod-world, with single-occupancy pod-armadas leading to an irresistible demand for more roads, and with people cloistered away in walkways and tunnels; Bladerunner but with added trees.

Most likely, the reality will turn out to be somewhere in between, as cities and regions across the globe shape and accommodate innovation and experimentation.

But in the understandable rush for the benefits of automation we need to start with the end in mind. What type of places do we want to live in? How do we want to relate to each other? How do we want to be?

At Sustrans we want to see a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone – because without concerted effort we are going to end up with an unequal and inequitable distribution of the benefits and disbenefits from the mobility revolution. Fundamentally this is about space and power. The age-old question of who has access to space and how. And power tends to win.  

The wealthy will use AV’s and EV’s first – they already are – and the young and upwardly mobile will embrace micro mobility. But low-income, older and disabled residents could be left in the margins with old tech, no tech and no space.

We were founded in 1977, when off the back of the oil crises a group of engineers and radical thinkers pioneered the transformation of old railway lines into paths that everyone could walk and cycle on: old tech put to the service of even older tech. Back then the petrol-powered car was the future. Over 40 years on, the 16,575-mile National Cycle Network spans the length and breadth of the UK, crossing and connecting towns, cities and countryside, with over half of the population living within two miles of its routes.


Last year, more than 800 million trips were made on the Network. That’s almost half as many journeys made on the rail network, or 12 journeys for every person in the UK. These trips benefited the UK economy by £88m through reduced road congestion and contributed £2.5bn to local economies through leisure and tourism. Walking and cycling on the Network also prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.

These benefits would be much higher if the paths on the entire Network were separated from motor traffic; currently only one third of them are. Completing an entirely traffic-free walking and cycling network won’t be simple. So why do it?

In a world of micro-mobility, AVs and other disruptive technology, is the National Cycle Network still relevant?

Yes, absolutely. This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.

No matter how clever the technological interface between autonomous vehicles and people, we will need dedicated space for the public to move under their own power, to walk and cycle, away from vehicles. As a civil society we will need to fight for this.

And for this reason, the creation of vehicle-free space – a network of walking and cycling paths for everyone is as important, and as radical, as it was 40-years ago.

Xavier Brice is CEO of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans. He spoke at the MOVE 2019 conference last week.