Post-war reconstruction involved taxing the richest – it could help with building a low-carbon economy.

Amid the worst public health crisis in a generation, an economic disaster has been brewing. Experts predict the fallout from Covid-19 could cause a historic downturn. Meanwhile, scientific evidence of species extinction, biodiversity loss and climate change continues to accumulate. To create long lasting prosperity, the post-pandemic recovery will also need to tackle the complex environmental crisis.

“A recent example from France shows exactly how not to do it.”

It will take government investment to accelerate a green transformation of the economy, so that energy, heating and transport systems can reach net-zero emissions as soon as possible. So, alongside borrowing at a time of low interest rates, how could some of that money be raised?

A recent example from France shows exactly how not to do it. A fuel tax hike by Emmanuel Macron’s government – intended to nudge people to use less petrol, diesel and heating oil – sparked widespread protests throughout 2018 and 2019. The gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement tapped into discontent about the rising cost of living, but also a deep resentment that the public was having to shoulder the cost of decarbonisation.

If ordinary people, who have been hit hard by the pandemic – and have relatively small carbon footprints – are expected to cough up to fund a green economic stimulus, the programme is unlikely to be popular. But 75 years on from the UK’s last great recovery effort, it’s worth remembering how Britain pulled together in the past.

Why should the richest contribute more?

The UK’s millionaires and billionaires hold more responsibility for climate change as a result of their lifestyles and investments. One study estimated that the average greenhouse gas emissions per person of the richest 1% in the UK is equivalent to around 147 tonnes of carbon dioxide, compared to an average of four tonnes for someone in the poorest 10%. One of the reasons that the rich have larger carbon footprints is because they fly further and more often than the average person.

The richest 1% also invest their wealth in companies whose operations are highly polluting. I created a database where I calculated the greenhouse gas emissions connected to the shares held by senior executives and directors at major oil, gas and mining companies. Since I pioneered this methodology, Bloomberg Green’s work has helped identify the world’s ten richest billionaires whose fortunes help fuel climate change. Warren Buffet – the world’s fifth richest man – owns Berkshire Hathaway, a conglomerate that has held shares in several airlines and energy utilities. According to Bloomberg Green’s analysis, in 2018 Buffett’s conglomerate “was directly and indirectly responsible for 189 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions” which they calculate is the same as burning 21 billion gallons of gasoline..

“The UK’s millionaires and billionaires hold more responsibility for climate change as a result of their lifestyles and investments.”

The UK has a history of making the richest contribute more at a time of national crisis. One of the things the UK government did to fund the war effort and post-war reconstruction after 1945, was to raise taxes on income, inheritance and luxury goods, like motor cars. In many ways, carbon inequality was even more pronounced in the early part of the 20th century, as only the richest could afford cars.

The top marginal income tax rate went up from 75% in 1938 to 98% in 1941, and it stayed at this level until 1952, only dropping below 89% in 1978. The top inheritance tax rate went up from 50% in 1938 to 65% during the war, and it increased to 80% between 1949 and 1968. This source of additional revenue helped Britain build a welfare state and the NHS.

In 2020, income tax on those earning over £150,000 is 45%, while inheritance tax is set at 40%. Since millions of working people have been pushed into unemployment and debt by the pandemic, they should be the first to get help, not the first to be taxed.

A bailout for workers

The global collapse in demand for oil has cost thousands of people their jobs in the North Sea oil and gas sector. Around 270,000 people depend on this industry – that’s a lot of people facing an uncertain future. But their skills could be redeployed for better purposes.

Starting in the 1970s, the UK government enabled the extraction of oil and gas in the North Sea through massive incentives and investment, and it continues to incentivise extraction through tax breaks. The government should stop propping up this dying industry and pivot to support the growing offshore wind energy sector to replace oil and gas jobs lost that are not coming back.

The transferable skills that most workers in the North Sea oil and gas supply chains already have can be used to make the UK a global powerhouse for offshore wind energy. For those with specialist skills, retraining could be provided.

Raising taxes on the richest who have most responsibility for climate change is one way to raise revenue to secure the livelihoods of oil and gas workers, and their grandchildren, by addressing climate change. Just as those with the broadest shoulders were asked to make their contribution to the war effort, so should the wealthiest help communities get back on their feet today.

“Since millions of working people have been pushed into unemployment and debt by the pandemic, they should be the first to get help.”

Prime minister, Boris Johnson, has said the pandemic is a national crisis on a par with the Second World War. In 2020, people are celebrated the anniversary of Victory in Europe day during another hour of need. Just as it did 75 years ago, the government should ask those with more resources – and the largest carbon footprints – to contribute more to the country’s green reconstruction.


This article was first published in The Conversation on 8 May 2020 and is reproduced with the permission of the author.

Dario Kenner

Dario is a Visiting Fellow at the Global Sustainability Institute based at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. His research focuses on the connections between wealth and environmental impact. He is the …

Read More »