Luxury Emissions – Why We Need to Cut Them

by | 13 Jan 2023 | Stay Grounded activities

We know that not all forms of energy use and emissions are created equal. We also know that some of both are unavoidable for human subsistence. Yet, there’s a current paradox around what counts as wasteful uses of energy and what doesn’t. How is it possible that people are freezing in their homes this winter or paying astronomical amounts for heating whilst luxuries like flying, eating meat and driving SUV’s largely continue without scrutiny amidst an energy crisis? Moreover, these luxuries cost us dearly in climate-heating emissions despite the current context of our current climate changed world – so what gives?

The future is now:

To glean insight into these question, Stay Grounded has been engaging with the Make Them Pay campaign, supporting their actions to ban private jets. We also held a discussion this year with climate scientist and global climate justice activist Payal Parekh, alongside Andrew Simms from the New Weather Institute who’s worked on the green new deal and car-free cities and our own Manuel Grebenjak – an activist for Austria’s  System Change Not Climate Change. Here’s what we found out…

Let them eat cake?

We need to start thinking about luxury activities as waste and make the effects this lifestyle has on the subsistence of many communities around the globe more obvious.

It is fundamentally about basic needs versus the unnecessary which has nothing to do with survival – Payal Parekh

To highlight this point, we also need to consider the great crisis of inequality that is upon us. The great crisis of inequality is exacerbating all the social, environmental and climate problems that frontline communities have already been exposed to for some time. These impacts are taking place now and not in some imagined distant future. One example is Cancer Alley in the US or as Parekh pointed to, the burning of coal to the demise of local indigenous populations. In fact the list of examples grows longer by the day. To be sure, the privileged are also beginning to face the everyday effects from the climate crisis but can still more or less maintain their current lifestyles. Yet, given the effects of the climate and energy crisis on frontline communities, Manuel Grebenjak asks how:

We still talk about flying less as a sacrifice but we don’t talk about the sacrifices we make for the aviation industry?

The blue pill or the red pill?

All this said, it’s unavoidably clear we need to seriously (keep) asking ourselves which sectors of the economy, and which energy intensive activities serve all of us or mainly benefit the richest.

Andrew Simms of New Weather Institute reminds us not to get sucked into the false dichotomy of individual versus systemic change. Yes, and resoundingly so, we need systemic change, but this doesn’t mean individual changes have no value. As Simms says, “there’s something to be said for the social contagion effect”. This effect comes as individual behaviourial change gains momentum and leads to a collective shift in norms1. Such an effect could give the initial impetus for spurring needed changes amongst the privileged, with the best outcome being people coming together to create new social norms around behaviours – like flying – while collectively pushing for systemic change. This effect can make it easier to build forces pushing for systemic changes to take hold when the political climate is ripe for it. Simms continues:

Look at moments of upheaval when there’s dramatic change – like the pandemic. Or when municipalities boldly push for change, and then residents don’t want to go back to the old way – like with removing half of parking spaces. When it comes to mega-cities, we can promote a race to the top. Take lessons of health and social issues that have helped push to reconfigure urban environments. We can also take lessons from the tobacco industry. We have to hold onto the ability to change.

In terms of luxury emissions and energy use, we need to collectively push for a stop to using precious energy resources and what’s left of our carbon budget for hard to decarbonize sectors – like aviation, like the meat industry, like the automobile industry – which benefit society’s wealthiest. These sectors all require massive and disproportionate amounts of resources and energy (and/or renewable energy) to decarbonize – so let’s just collectively choose not to.

Other ways we can address wasteful emissions and energy demands are through carefully crafted taxes or even an entire package of just tax measures – but ensuring that these taxes hit the pockets of the rich. For the aviation industry specifically, we can look at frequent flyer levies, banning regional and local flights until this becomes the new normal and most certainly banning private jets and other bullshit flights.

Yet, the most basic issue we need to take up in the discussion about wasteful emissions and energy demands is the critical need to address inequalities and close wealth gaps. Manuel Grebenjak states:

Like emissions, the bigger the wealth gap, the worse it gets, we need to look at how to close the inequality gap to reduce energy use and emissions…We need a green populism in an honest way – that makes transparent wealth gaps – that goes into conflicts and speaks about these issues sufficiently. Until now politics has been relatively tame here.

Fundamentally, we need to show the hypocrisy of downright excessive wealth and the waste of luxury in the face of needs for subsistence. This, plus we must carve out a pathway towards just transitions that includes the recognition of climate injustices on frontline communities and reparations for these groups with bold moves towards debt cancellation and no strings attached funds for such a transition. And as importantly, we simply need to care for one another and for the planet.

Listen to the recording of the Twitter Space here

1 – IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, 3056 pp., doi:10.1017/9781009325844.

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