May 18, 2021

How Eliminating Inequality Can Protect the Planet

In May 2020, the World Economic Forum proposed the idea of a “Great Reset” – a collective shift in humanity’s approach towards sustainable economic recovery in the wake of COVID-19.

As we step into the new year – traditionally a time when many of us try our hand at individual “resets” – humanity remains at a crossroads of uncertainty after 2020 concluded as a year of turmoil: Do we aim to get back to where we were before the pandemic, or should we reset and get smarter and greener about our future and the health of the planet?

For me, the answer is obvious. We live at a point in time when 57% of our rainforests have already been lost and when 1 million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction. Perhaps less obvious is the fact that targeting socioeconomic inequality can have a positive impact on the environment.

Indeed, the UN convention on biological diversity points out that biodiversity is about more than plants, animals, microorganisms, and natural ecosystems – it’s also about people. That includes food security, medicines, fresh air and water, shelter, and a clean and a healthy environment in which to live. It’s becoming clearer that when the resources that enable people to live full lives are either unavailable or not equally distributed, the environment also suffers.

Why is that?

A major factor is that socioeconomic inequality and damage to the environment are mutually reinforcing.

Inequality & the
Environment

In The Equality Effect: Improving Life for Everyone, Professor Danny Dorling suggests a link between how unequal a society is and the impact it has on the environment. Relatively affluent but unequal nations, for example, tend to produce more CO2, buy more goods, and produce more waste due to unsustainable consumption patterns. These include buying cheaper goods that aren’t built to last and the much-criticised “wear it once” culture. In contrast, more equal societies generally consume less and place the environment higher up the agenda. They’re more likely to make lifestyle decisions that are better for the environment such as cycling or walking to work and pushing for infrastructure that enables a more sustainable approach to living life.

In less affluent nations, inequality has an impact on the environment in a different way. A study of 50 developing nations from 2001 and 2014 identified poverty as one of the principal sources of environmental damage in those countries. One reason is that to survive, people are often forced to take more from the land that it can give. Poverty and its corresponding socioeconomic conditions can exert greater pressure on the environment through things like inefficient farming practices that overuse and exhaust land and deforestation, a major cause of declining biodiversity.

These findings reinforce a basic fact: Working towards a sustainable planet also means working towards eliminating socioeconomic inequality wherever it exists, on a national and international scale and in developing and developed nations alike.

Due to the devastation COVID-19 has wrought on economic markers like employment, trade, and consumption, inequality is widening. The poorest, most marginalized members of society have of course been hit hardest by the pandemic. Estimates from the World Bank hold that COVID-19 will push an estimated 424 million people into poverty, reversing decades of progress and widening inequality both in developing and developed nations.

After taking a short breather from the collective weight of humanity’s footprint during lockdown, the environment is likely to also suffer as a result of the pandemic. We risk seeing a surge in inequality that will hamper efforts to protect the planet as well as worsen the lives of millions of people.

Technology as a Reset Tool

Technology can help mitigate humanity’s footprint on the environment. For example, ICT solutions can serve to dampen Kuznet’s curve, which correlates economic growth and environmental degradation. History has shown that it’s extremely hard to sidestep a negative impact on the environment in the early stages of economic growth. But that’s changing. Clean energy projects can play – and are playing – a role in reducing emissions, revitalizing economies, and heading off poverty by creating jobs. Technology is making a dent in illegal logging and deforestation across the globe.

And ICT is redefining how we protect endangered species, including the critically endangered Amur tigers.

Footage from camera traps in the China Northeast Tiger and Leopard Park courtesy of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration at the Amur Tiger and Amur Leopard Monitoring and Research Center

Balancing Priorities

Environmental issues tend to take a back seat when people are faced with more immediate threats. Relatively few families have emerged unscathed from disruptions caused by health risks, school closures, job uncertainty, isolation, and lockdown. However, socioeconomic issues and environmental issues must be part of the same conversation – a conversation that must remain high on the global agenda.

Is it time for a great reset so that 2021 becomes a turning point for the planet, not a tipping point?

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