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.

 
 
 
 

Could more cities charge employers for parking spaces to help fund local infrastructure?

Look at all that lovely, empty space. Image: Getty.

As government budget cuts continue to bite and competition for funding increases, it’s becoming harder for UK cities to secure the money needed to build or maintain good quality infrastructure. For example, Sheffield’s Supertram network faces a £230m funding gap, and could close unless transport executives can raise the funds to renew the network.

But if central government won’t provide funding, there are other ways for city authorities such as Sheffield to generate income for much needed transport infrastructure. One idea is a workplace parking levy, which is a charge placed on all workplace car parking spaces within a specific boundary.

The premise is simple: each year, the business who owns that space must pay the local authority a set amount of money. Businesses may chose to pay this themselves, or pass the charge on to their employees through car parking fees. The money collected from the levy is used to help fund transport projects within the local area, while also encouraging commuters to shift away from cars and onto other modes of transport.

Pioneer cities

After being adopted in Australian and Canadian cities, the levy was first introduced to the UK in 2012 in the city of Nottingham. During its first year, the charge raised £7m and has continued to raise funds since. The money has allowed Nottingham to keep up its contributions to the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) that was used to pay for an expansion of the city’s tram network, along with other important transport improvements.

Currently, the cost per space stands at £402 per year, although there are some notable exceptions to the charge: businesses with fewer than 11 spaces don’t have to pay, and there’s no charge for emergency services and disabled parking.

Other cities have begun to follow Nottingham’s path. Both Oxford and Cambridge have made steps towards introducing their own versions of the levy to fund transport improvements.

Manchester considered the levy as a tool to help improve the city’s air quality, although a proposal was recently rejected by the city council on the basis that the levy would need to be applied across the whole of Greater Manchester to work. Sheffield made a small reference to the potential use of a levy in its recent draft transport vision, although it’s not clear how well developed these plans are.

Together with colleagues from the universities of Nottingham and Southampton, I’ve undertaken research which included interviewing a range of key people from Nottingham’s city council, the local tram operator, the Chamber of Commerce, as well as politicians and managing directors of several Nottingham-based businesses, to find out what made Nottingham’s workplace parking levy a success.


Recipe for success

For one thing, Nottingham is a politically stable city. Labour are the dominant party within the local council and have been since 1991, so councillors are less concerned about suffering electoral losses in response to a poorly received policy, and more confident about implementing more radical ideas.

Nottingham’s boundary is also tightly drawn, which meant that deciding where to apply the charge was more straightforward. Manchester’s experience shows that larger cities may have more difficulty in determining who is subject to the charge.

Initially, some businesses saw the charge as a “tax” on them and opposed the policy; media reports at the time warned of businesses leaving the city and moving to nearby economic centres, such as Derby. But there is no evidence to suggest that these worries have materialised in the longer term.

Identifying a piece of infrastructure, such as a tram system, that will be built using funds from the levy also appeared to be an important argument to “sell” the charge to sceptics. So although there was opposition to the workplace parking levy, there was also a lot of support for the tram expansion and the benefits this could bring.

An opportunity to invest

The workplace parking levy offers cities an opportunity to collect and invest large amounts of money in their own infrastructure; or to leverage even greater amounts of money from other sources, which might otherwise be unfeasible.

For Nottingham, a large part of its success is based on the fact that it preemptively used the money raised through the workplace parking levy to leverage significant finance from the UK government, through the PFI deal. To secure these funds to pay for the tram expansion, Nottingham agreed to commit to repaying 35 per cent of the value of the PFI (estimated at £187m). The council has used the levy on an ongoing basis to help it meet these costs.

The experience of Nottingham and other pioneer cities shows that while the workplace parking levy is based on a rather simple premise, introducing one is not a simple process. There will undoubtedly be opposition; the local authority may need to work hard to emphasise the benefits, in order to adopt the policy. And of course, every city and town is different, so there’s no single path to success.

But as local authorities continue tightening their belts in response to ever more challenging budgets, it may not be long before we see more places taking steps to introduce their own workplace parking levy.

The Conversation

Stephen Parkes, Research Associate, Sheffield Hallam University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.