As of 2016, 3.2 billion people globally are considered middle class. A study by the Brookings Institution estimates this number to increase by 140 million annually, and in the next five years, by 170 million. While the growth of the global middle class is not necessarily the same all over the world, it can be considered an Asian phenomenon, with 88 percent of new entrants coming from China, India, and other Asian developing countries.
The world is getting developed. The number of poor people is decreasing. This is good news, right?
Well of course. A growing middle class is good for the economy. In fact, World Bank research emphasised that the middle class “facilitates higher levels of income and growth, as well as higher quality of public goods.”
But what does this mean for the environment?
Well, if you analyse this development using the lens of climate change, this does not necessarily bode well for the planet.
Dabo Guan, a professor of climate change economics at the United Kingdom’s University of East Anglia sums up the environmental impact of a growing middle class: “All these urban newly wealthy — not only in China, but also in India and elsewhere — want to drive 4x4s and own big houses. That’s very dangerous. We would need the resources of three more planets like Earth in order for those aspirations to be fulfilled.”“All these urban newly wealthy — not only in China, but also in India and elsewhere — want to drive 4x4s and own big houses. That’s very dangerous. We would need the resources of three more planets like Earth in order for those aspirations to be fulfilled.”Click To Tweet
Brookings Institution Deputy Director for Global Economy and Development Homi Kharas agrees with Guan’s assessment, noting that the global middle class is now responsible for one-third of global spending. In a study that was conducted by Guan and his colleagues at the University of East Anglia, it was found that the growth of the middle class led to an increase in domestic consumption and carbon footprints.
According to the study, “Increasing consumption in urbanising China has been identified as an important driver of household carbon footprints over the last 20 years due to the growing urban population and incomes, while decreasing carbon intensity of the Chinese economy only weakly dampens these trends.”
This is concerning as China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Guan’s and his colleagues’ analysis shows that no matter the efforts of the Chinese government in trying to curb climate change, this is bound to fail in the face of increasing demand and consumption that negates these efforts.
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Unfortunately, it is not just China that is problematic here. There is also India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico all considered developing countries and all among the top 10 greenhouse emitters. Studies show that developing countries are more likely to bear the brunt of climate change as compared to developed countries.
But it is necessary to point out that research has shown that among the income classes, the middle class will be the one that will be most severely impacted by climate change. A report by the World Economic Forum references a finding of Swiss bank UBS — “the way the world’s middle class copes with climate change could present a risk to social stability and economic growth.”
So we go to the million dollar question: what can be done, especially by the middle class, to mitigate the effects of climate change?
There are three important areas where the middle class can play a significant role:
1. Increasing Awareness
It is important for the middle class to be aware of the role they play in mitigating climate change. They need to be more conscious of the consequences of their actions, especially in consumption and spending and how this translates to carbon footprints. In this matter, the government and non-state actors have an important role to play, in increasing the consciousness of the middle class.
Fortunately, being educated and highly engaged in society, it is easy for this income group to grasp the importance of this matter. In fact, most middle-class members at this point already have a profound understanding of the impacts of climate change and the roles they need to play in mitigating its effects.
The UBS study noted that the middle class in major global centres such as Los Angeles, Tokyo, Mumbai, Shanghai, Taipei, and so on have very different spending patterns. This is because they are spending more on housing as compared to other types of expenditures. This class of people is more prone to purchasing air conditioners to combat the heat, and insurance policies against property damage.
All of these are adaptation mechanisms that they have instituted against the effects of climate change. While these are important, it is more significant if these people actively take steps to address the causes of climate change such as adapting zero waste habits, plastic reduction, among others. Imagine how much of a difference 3.2 billion people following a low-carbon lifestyle can do for the good of the environment.
3. Promoting activism
Perhaps the best thing that they can contribute to mitigating climate change is taking collective action and activism. The middle class’ sheer size and power within the social and economic spheres make it very powerful in pushing for reforms and policies. They can pressure governments to legislate climate-friendly laws and limit carbon emissions, push for environmental protection, and environmental justice policies that consider the welfare of all people. This power is very crucial and can spell the difference in the fight against climate change.