Environmental inequality is the unequal distribution of environmental benefits and resources as well as risks and hazards among different groups of people. Environmental inequality can manifest itself among classes, age, gender and even globally among nations and states. Environmental inequality results in health disparities, economic challenges, livelihood and settlement problems and overall environmental injustice. This article explores the different dimensions of environmental inequalities which need to be addressed and resolved in order to find long term solutions for problems like global warming and climate change.
Economic inequality and environment
The economically poorer sections often suffer more due to environmental degradation. One of the most visible consequences of environmental inequality in economic terms is the disparate health outcomes between the rich and the poor. Poor and inadequate housing and sanitation combined with lack of access to healthcare and medical facilities make the poor more prone to pollutant induced diseases. Statistics show that there is a clear correlation between lower income levels and increased exposure to environmental risks. The World Health Organization estimates that over 2 billion people globally lack access to basic sanitation and most of them are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Apart from that, displacement and migration are also some other problems faced by these people. The poorer population tends to reside more in disaster prone regions. In times of flood, storms, droughts etc. these people are displaced, forced to migrate and rendered homeless .In 2022 itself, there were 60.9 million internal displacements out of which 32.6 million were associated with disasters . The affluent section of the society has the privilege of getting away with degrading the environment because of secure settlement, livelihood and wealth but the poorer section of the society has to suffer first in such times. In Urban areas the rich can shelter themselves in a safe haven of green belts, urban forests, and eco parks but the poor people of the urban areas do not have that choice. Depending on where we live, there are different daily doses of air pollution and loud traffic. Richer regions of cities are less polluted than poorer ones. Typically, the concentration of pollution around our residence increases with the proximity and congestion of a road. It follows that those who reside on crowded, noisy high streets, slums etc.—bear the brunt of economic and environmental problems, as well as the health consequences. Thus ,the share of suffering among different classes is never fair, the rich often getting themselves exempted because of economic privilege.
Indigenous population and climate change
It is estimated that the world is on track to warming by 2.4 Celsius. According to climate scientists, it is extremely urgent to limit warming by 1.5 degrees. It is a fact that increasing the temperature at the rate of 2.4 would be a death sentence for many people around the world. But what needs to be pondered upon is that even limiting that rate at 1.5 degrees is fatal for so many communities around the world. We are currently at the bar of 1.2 degrees but even at this stage many communities around the world are in dystopic condition. Across the African continent the climate crisis has been ravaging vast areas for many decades. The weather patterns have been disrupted. As a result of all these many people lost their livelihood, land, businesses and even lives. Although limiting the rate of increase of temperature at 1.5 degree Celsius appears like salvation to the first world countries it is not so for many indigenous communities across the world. Thus it can be observed that the policies that are taken up for protection of the environment are made by keeping in mind only the conditions of the mainstream population. The indigenous people across the world are the most vulnerable groups to global warming and climate change and they have already been paying a very high cost for a problem that they did not cause. Nearly 15 % of the world’s poor are indigenous peoples, even though indigenous peoples constitute an estimated 5 %of the world’s population. The World Bank estimates that, of the 100 million people across the world that could be pushed back into poverty as a consequence of climate change, 13 million people in East Asia and the Pacific could fall into poverty by 2030.
Gender disparities and environmental problems
Global warming and climate change are threats for the whole of humanity, but like most humanitarian problems it is not ‘gender neutral’ .The effects of climate change reflect and magnify the structural inequalities between men and women , especially of those from the rural areas and the working class. Women from poor and marginal backgrounds are often employed in climate sensitive works. So, women from marginalized backgrounds have to bear both economic and gendered problems which have risen up due to climate change. The issue of correlation between gender disparities and environment can be clearly observed in the primary sector of the economy. Women are more engaged in the agricultural sector, then in the secondary or tertiary sectors, especially in the global south. But women often do not have access to agricultural resources, modern and sustainable technologies and autonomy in the decision making process. Women offer much more unpaid services then men and when climate disasters occur it increases further as women take on additional workload of rebuilding and rehabilitating their household. Disasters can also impact on the accessibility of education and employment of women which compel them to confine themselves to household and unpaid work. Again, after disasters women become more vulnerable to gender based violence. Their privacy, security and hygiene all are compromised in such times.
Global North V/s Global South: Disparities ,Responsibilities ,and Policies
The most important task while finding the solutions for Global environmental problems is finding a common ground for all countries around the world to work together. However, the affluent and the least developed face different realities in this matter. The Global North, or affluent countries, have contributed to around half of all emissions since the Industrial Revolution, according to the World Inequality Database. Privileged lifestyles in Europe, North America, and other Global North nations have a carbon footprint 100 times greater than poor nations combined. In 2019, the top 10% of global emitters contributed 48% of global CO2 emissions, while the bottom 50% contributed almost 12%.China’s historical contribution to global emissions is around 12.7%, while India(3%) and Brazil(0.9%) have not been significant contributors. African countries’ contributions, combined at 3%, have also been very small compared to the continent’s population size. The Global North continues to have higher per capita emissions than most of the world, with the US ranking highest with 16 tonnes in 2019, followed by Australia and Canada. Therefore, there is a conflict of responsibilities between the developed and developing world. While the Global north views that all nations are equally responsible to take climate actions ,the Global South views that they should not pay equally for a problem which has mostly been caused because of the Industrialized nations. Moreover, the impacts of climate change are also disproportionate for Global North and Global South. The Global Climate Risk Index 2021 shows that countries of the Global South, due to initial inequality, are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. The gap between the liability and risk of climate change between the North and the South makes it difficult for Nations to find a common platform and unanimous policy to combat global environmental concerns. While the North can invest a larger budget on environmental policies, the South has to invest more on developmental activities.
The way out
To find a solution to this mammoth problem, it is important to acknowledge that the Global North and Global South have different realities. It would not be plausible to expect both to work in similar ways, given that they have different capacities and priorities. Keeping this in mind, Common But Differentiated Responsibilities(CBDR) was formalized at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development(UNCED) 1992 in Rio De Janeiro. Moreover, there is an urgent need for more active inclusion of voices of the Global South especially of those who are directly affected by environmental problems. It is also important that the unheard voices like that of women, the poor and the BIPOC community should be given a place in policy making. Encouraging social equity and environmental sustainability is crucial for combating climate change. Elevating the socio-economic status of vulnerable populations and providing equitable access to resources encourage active participation in sustainable practices. Inclusive policies empower communities to adapt to changing climates, fostering innovation and resilience. This paradigm shift ensures a harmonious coexistence with the planet.