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Has Inequality Any Effect on Sustainability?

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Tackling economic inequality cannot come above tackling environmental damage

The most vulnerable in society suffer most from the effects of environmental damage. In addition, economic inequality exacerbates environmental damage. The two issues are intrinsically linked and in order to tackle them, we need to address them together. Greater inequality in a country, as defined through people’s relative distribution of income, pay and wealth, leads to poorer outcomes for health, happiness and education for almost everyone in that society. Those who suffer most from these effects of inequality in the UK are also disproportionately affected by the cost of environmental damage. This effect is evident when air pollution is shown to be significantly greater in the poorest 20 percent of neighbourhoods in the UK.

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Two major barriers to a measure of wealth concentration exist – political resistance and the absence of wealth data. To some extent political will could solve the issues of data – if we deem an outcome important enough to include in the post-2015 framework, we should invest in data collection and synthesis. However, this political commitment will be far from forthcoming. Wealth inequality is even more contentious than income inequality and many in the political elite would be strongly opposed to such a measure, despite its obvious merits. A measure of inclusive growth Inclusive growth has become an important part of the development lexicon

It helpfully questions what share of growth is going to different groups, for example, to the bottom 10% versus the top 10% or 1%. This can be done with comprehensive tax records, such as the work by Saez at the University of California. However, given that there are only a handful of countries that have mature tax systems, this work would be difficult to imitate for other countries in the short term. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) have developed a series of indicators to measure the different income and non-income facets of inclusive growth. This list provides several options from us to choose from, including a measure of the job output of growth or a measure of consumption growth between different deciles. However, given the need for simplicity, the measure we prefer is the change in real median incomes. The median income measure, rather than a mean measure, is more relevant because it demonstrates the situation for the typical person or household. The London School of Economics (LSE) Growth Commission, set up in the aftermath of the Great Recession, recommends that governments publish median household income alongside the data on GDP on a regular basis. The income figure would be the inflation adjusted median. Equivalised disposable income derived would provide an immediate impression of income growth for a typical citizen. A median measure would also sit well alongside the Palma ratio, which as discussed ignores what is happening in the middle of the distribution. Together these measures would build a strong and highly communicable narrative of what is happening to the income distribution.

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Income and wealth are not the only dimensions of inequality that affect environmental outcomes. In particular, gender inequality plays an important role in the protection of the environment

Clearly, gender inequality often works in combination with other dimensions of inequality. For example, gender inequality generally reinforces the income and wealth inequality. However, there are aspects of gender inequality that go beyond income and wealth inequality and often prove important for environmental sustainability. The role of gender inequality has been discussed particularly in the context of collective efforts necessary for managing common property resources. Agarwal (2007), for example, provides detailed information about how gender inequality affects collective efforts aimed at the protection of forests under common and public property in India. Agarwal thinks that the observed positive effect of women’s participation in the protection of forests can be enhanced further by ensuring their greater and more effective participation in CFG activities and decision making. Agarwal (2010) amplifies this argument further. The beneficial impact of the reduction of gender inequality is not limited to the protection of environmental resources under common property. It rather has more general validity. As noted already, gender inequality is often a manifestation of unequal power situation rooted in unequal distribution of income and wealth and in social norms and tradition. Thus there may be synergy among efforts towards the reduction of income inequality and gender inequality. This synergy may be used for promoting the goal of environmental sustainability through different channels, including community and national hannels.

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Given these points, yet some argue too that effective sustainability will only be realized at the scale, depth and urgency required if there is strong, directive, top-down leadership, prioritizing environmental sustainability above political inclusion and democracy. Counter-arguments are that non-inclusive sustainability solutions will ultimately flounder or be resisted, and that effective, long-term sustainability will only emerge when democratic inclusion and citizen participation are assured. Tackling political inequalities emerges as a crucial contributor to sustainability, intrinsic to notions of sustainability that also encompass social justice.

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Agarwal, Bina (2010), Gender and Green Governance, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Boyce, J. K. (1994). Inequality as a cause of environmental degradation. Ecological Economics, 11(1994), 169-178.

Dorling, D., A. Barford, and B. Wheeler (2007), Health Impacts of an environmental disaster: a polemic. Environmental Research Letters, 2(045007), 11pp. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/2/4/045007

Ergas, Christina and Richard York (2012), “Womens’ status and carbon dioxide emissions: A quantitative cross-national analysis, Social Science Research, 41: 965-976

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