Oxfam: Can fairer taxes save our environment?

Oxfam report on ‘carbon inequality’ identifies problems but fails to come close to any meaningful solution.

Proletarian TV

Subscribe to our channel

Proletarian TV

Subscribe to our channel

A report from Oxfam published in September titled ‘Confronting Carbon Inequality’ and based on research carried out with the Stockholm Environment Institute, has found that “the richest 1 percent of people globally cause more than double the carbon emissions of the three billion who make up the poorest 50 percent”.

Report author Tim Gore describes how “extreme carbon inequality” is driving the world inexorably toward a climatic disaster. Despite being couched in somewhat woolly language, the report nevertheless exposes who is the leading cause of manmade climate change.

Mr Gore focuses on “how global carbon emissions are attributed to individuals who are the end consumers of goods and services for which the emissions were generated”, ignoring the elephant in the room that is the production of and fuel for weapons for war – a sector of production so vital to the continued domination of the handful of rich imperialist countries.

‘Respectable’ endorsements

The report opens with a quote from former United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who points out that “Our current economic model has been an enabler of catastrophic climate change and equally catastrophic inequality.”

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, environmental activist and president of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, follows: “Oxfam’s timely report shows once again that to tackle climate change we must fight for social and economic justice for everyone.”

“My indigenous peoples have long borne the brunt of environmental destruction,” continues Ms Ibrahim, as she calls for the world to “prioritise saving nature to save ourselves”.

The trio of esteemed endorsers is completed by ITUC (International Trade Union Congress) general secretary Sharan Burrow, who, in true reformist fashion, calls for a “Just Transition” (her capitals) and “a voice at the table for those most affected by the climate emergency”.

Masking economic inequality with ‘carbon inequality’

“New research … reveals the extreme carbon inequality in recent decades that has driven the world to the climate brink,” says Gore’s briefing, before setting out his stark findings:

“The richest 10 percent of the world’s population (c 630 million people) were responsible for 52 percent of the cumulative carbon emissions – depleting the global carbon budget by nearly a third (31 percent) in those 25 years alone;

“The poorest 50 percent (c 3.1 billion people) were responsible for just 7 percent of cumulative emissions, and used just 4 percent of the available carbon budget;

“The richest 1 percent (c 63 million people) alone were responsible for 15 percent of cumulative emissions, and 9 percent of the carbon budget – twice as much as the poorest half of the world’s population;

“The richest 5 percent (c 315 million people) were responsible for over a third (37 percent) of the total growth in emissions, while the total growth in emissions of the richest 1 percent was three times that of the poorest 50 percent.”

Such is the world under the capitalist mode of production, where 63 million at the top of the heap do more than twice the environmental harm than do the 3.1 billion souls (a number almost 50 times greater) whose toil supports those at the top.

(Stark as these figures are, we suspect it would be even more illuminating to see what proportion of the top percentile is accounted for by the 0.1 percent or even the 0.01 percent [the real super-rich] with their lives of luxurious leisure, conspicuous consumption and unimaginable wealth, travelling between their multiple residences with large retinues in helicopters, private jets and super yachts.)

The global carbon budget alluded to above is defined as “the maximum amount of cumulative emissions that can be added if the rise in average global temperature is to be kept below a certain level, such as the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C goal, after which net emissions must be zero”.

“Unless emissions continue to decline rapidly,” as they have done during the months of lockdown this year, Gore warns, “the 1.5C global carbon budget will be fully depleted by 2030.” A sobering thought, to be sure.

Tellingly, the report admits that, at present, “inequality is such that the richest 10 percent alone would fully deplete [the carbon budget] by just a few years later, even if everyone else’s emissions dropped to zero tomorrow.” (Our emphasis)

So while we, the working class, are endlessly lectured about the need to change our lifestyles, to cut out some of the supposed luxuries of life such as eating meat and travelling by plane, and to accept that saving the environment means going without, it turns out that all this privation won’t actually make a blind bit of difference so long as the richest members of this decaying society, in their wild extravagance, are busy negating any and all effects of our sacrifices.

The point is driven home further still: “Over the past 20-30 years, the climate crisis has been fuelled and our limited global carbon budget squandered in the service of increasing the consumption of the already affluent, rather than lifting people out of poverty.”

Once again we see how, in capitalist society, wealth is hoarded and consumed by those who are already wealthy beyond reason. The super-rich use their wealth and power to firmly entrench themselves in place and to fund a lifestyle of decadence and waste without limit.

The report continues: “Yet while the pandemic triggered a chaotic and often inequitable contraction in consumption around the world, it has also shown that once unthinkable changes to the lifestyles of the richest in society can be adopted in the interests of us all.”

Sadly, the gentlemen at Oxfam are not referring here to socialist revolution; they have in mind an idea much more palatable to the rich: “Public policies – from taxing luxury carbon like SUVs, frequent business class flights and private jets, to expanding digital and public transport infrastructure – can cut emissions, reduce inequality and boost public health.”

‘Era of extreme carbon inequality’

“The 25 years from 1990 to 2015,” says the report, “saw a rapid escalation of the climate crisis.”

“Global GDP doubled in this period too, and while there was significant progress in reducing the proportion of humanity living in extreme poverty (on less than $1.90/day), income inequality grew around the world, with the share of national income captured by the richest 1 percent increasing in most countries. It is striking that in 2015 – even after that huge expansion in global GDP – nearly half the world’s population still earned less than the more realistic $5.50/day poverty line.”

“One estimate,” attributed to David Woodward’s Incrementum ad Absurdum, current rates to lift everyone above the $5.50 poverty line – a terribly inefficient and morally indefensible approach to poverty reduction.” This is indeed a damning indictment of the capitalist mode of production; further proof that it is utterly unfit for purpose and ripe for destruction.

Woodward’s estimate is, of course, something of a thought experiment, totally detached from reality. In reality, if the imperialist system were somehow to stagger on for another 200 years without making the planet uninhabitable for human life or succumbing to the inevitable wave of socialist revolutions, the ‘current rates’ of poverty eradication would not stay the same, because inequality – the gap between the absurdly wealthy capitalist class and the increasingly destitute working class – would continue to increase at an ever faster rate.

(Let it be noted in passing that almost everywhere apart from China, the number of people in poverty continues to grow. It is only China’s titanic efforts at reversing this trend that allow western statisticians to claim otherwise.)

“This is an injustice which is felt most cruelly by two groups who have contributed least to the climate crisis: the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people around the world today – already experiencing the impacts of a world that is 1C hotter – and future generations who will inherit a depleted carbon budget and an even more dangerous climate.”

Terrified of calling a spade a spade, the report meanders on: “It is vital to recognise that the income-based carbon inequalities explored here are intertwined with and reinforce other power structures associated with gender, race, age or caste, among others.” Hiding ‘among others’ is, of course, the most important of the ‘power structures’ – class – that is, how a person relates to the means of production, be that as an owner or a profit-creating appendage.

‘Tackling carbon inequality – where to start?’

“Today’s extreme carbon inequality is [according to Gore, at least] the result of political choices made over the past 20-30 years, a period dominated by neoliberal economic thinking and elite political capture that has seen income and wealth inequality in most countries soar, reflecting deeply entrenched systems of patriarchy and colonialism that prioritise domination and enrichment of some, at the cost of others.”

In fact, inequality is not a by-product of political ‘choices’ but of the capitalist system itself. Apart from a short period of wealth redistribution under pressure from a mobilised working class and an advancing international socialist movement following, wealth disparity has grown exponentially throughout the last three centuries of capitalist production, alongside the relentless accumulation of society’s vast wealth into ever fewer hands.

Leaving aside the bourgeois-feminist allusion to capitalism as a so-called ‘patriarchy’, or the fact that colonialism was a feature of early capitalism that was long ago replaced by the systematic looting of the world’s poor through imperialist superexploitation and control, let us merely point out that today it is not ‘some’ who dominate and are enriched while ‘others’ suffer, but a preposterously tiny handful of people, numbering in the tens, who grow absurdly rich through the exploitation and expropriation of the overwhelming majority of humanity, numbering in the billions.

So where does Oxfam suggest we start? Well, “beyond shifting energy supply, policies are needed that reduce demand among the richest, highest emitters, while prioritising efforts to ensure everyone can realise their human rights”.

Apparently, the capitalist class is supposed to support policies – to be enforced by governments that they control – that will decrease its own consumption and redistribute a little of its wealth. This is patently nonsense. As for ensuring “everyone can realise their human rights”, dream on!

The only right that capitalist society recognises is the right of the capitalist class to make maximum profit at the expense of the working class – all else is a fairy tale.

Dreamily, the report continues: “beyond cutting high income footprints alone, such measures may lead to a broader ‘social tipping point’ that makes reductions by other relatively high emitters more acceptable, challenges the political influence of high emitters, and sparks wider shifts in social, gendered and racial norms about endless consumption.”

Despite the best efforts of Oxfam et al, however, the real ‘social tipping point’ we are inexorably moving towards is that of revolution, which will not simply ‘challenge the political influence of high emitters’ but utterly destroy it, placing political power firmly in the hands of the working class. Exactly what the ‘gendered and racial norms about endless consumption’ might be we leave it to the reader to determine.

‘Economic recovery from Covid-19’

Undeniably, “the pandemic triggered an unplanned and often inequitable contraction in consumption around the world”. Quite deniably, however, “it has also shown that governments can act radically in the face of an imminent threat, and that once unthinkable changes to the lifestyles of the global rich can be adopted in the interests of us all”.

The ‘global rich’, can, thanks to the status and power their wealth conveys upon them, largely disregard the diktat of any governments whose decrees do not fit in with their agenda. Consumption and lifestyle changes by these parasites ‘in the interests of us all’ will not be brought about by governmental decree, but only by force – either at the forceful behest of a rising working class whilst capitalism still exists or, more likely, by the forceful imposition of a new social order once the working class has captured state power.

Oxfam’s report closes by appealing to governments to consider the introduction of carbon taxes to try to ameliorate the obscene inequalities that have been identified, “critically, incorporating principles of social dialogue at all levels to ensure that the voices of workers in affected industries, women, low-income and marginalised groups are heard in designing just transitions to an economy that keeps global heating below 1.5C and a society that enables all its members to thrive”. (Our emphasis)

In fact, the idea of increased taxation as a panacea to the ills of capitalism returns over and again like a refrain through the document – the age-old beseeching cry of the reformer to the capitalist to think again, to please be a little kinder, a little saner, a little more equitable and a little less obviously rapacious.

The report is big on euphemism and woefully short on anything approaching a meaningful solution. From Ban Ki-moon’s sideways reference to the ‘economic model’ that is doing all this damage and Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim’s call for ‘social justice’, the reader is taken thus far and no further.

Mr Ban stops short of naming and shaming capitalist imperialism and its reckless drive for maximum profit at any cost as the ‘model’ that lies at the heart of the manmade environmental crisis, while Ms Ibrahim’s plea for ‘social justice’ is rendered meaningless by removing it from its proper context: the understanding that social justice is essentially a corollary of economic justice, which in turn can only be brought about by means of a socialist planned economy and working-class state power.

Just as the economic system of capitalism is presumed to be eternal, so the position of the working class within that system is assumed to be our fate forever more: one of supplicant subservience, reduced to begging humbly, as Sharan Burrow does in the introduction, for our ‘voice’ to be ‘heard’; eternally doffing our caps and never presuming to rise above our allotted station.

The truth that so persistently evades the likes of Oxfam and its fellow handwringing would-be reformers is that if we truly wish to solve the problems facing humanity – not only so-called ‘carbon inequality’ but the economic inequality that underlies it and which brings so much hunger, destitution, despair and endless wars in its train – the only solution is socialism: the abolition of the capitalist-imperialist system by the working class and the building of a socialist planned economy.

Only then can the world’s people live in peace and prosperity and our planet be treated with the respect that it is due.

The most useful aspect of Oxfam’s report is that it decimates the fairy tales put about by so many privileged environmentalists of ‘overconsumption’ being a universal problem. As Mr Gore has laid bare, consumption by the masses is actually going down even as carbon emissions continue to rise.

Calling for a further contraction in the consumption of the poorest clearly makes no sense in light of this fact.

Socialism doesn’t require the masses to stop consuming; quite the reverse. The whole purpose of the socialist revolution is to remove the fetters currently holding back production and to expand the consumption of the masses so that a decent, dignified and cultured life of peace and plenty can be lived by all.

Of course, it ought to go without saying that we will have to find ways to do that which are sustainable and which preserve the environment on which we depend for life. Equally obvious should be the fact that socialism will swiftly do away with the wasteful squandering of resources, whether for extravagant lifestyles such as those being lived by today’s super-rich, or for the production of endless throw-away pieces of plastic and other goods that serve no useful function but to create profits for the corporations that churn them out.

In a socialist society, wealth is the collective property of all those who create it, and is used to continually improve all aspects of life for the working people by raising their level of education, raising their level of culture, increasing their standard of living, and freeing up their time by shifting tedious drudgery onto machines.

Under socialism, science and technology are put at the service of the workers in order that they can solve such vital problems as the need to live sustainably and in harmony with nature.

You’ve got to be Red to be Green!