The poorest will be hardest hit by climate change

Climate policies should aim to reduce rather than increase inequalities and poverty

People on low incomes are at greatest risk from the impacts of climate change but their needs and concerns are not being heard or addressed during the Federal election campaign, warns the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS).

Kellie Caught, Program Director – Climate and Energy at ACOSS, reports below on a recent survey of more than 261 people, including many who receive income support payments and struggle with the costs of living.

Kellie Caught writes:

People on low incomes are extremely concerned about climate change and in a recent survey have indicated that action on climate change is very important to their vote at this federal election.

But despite being significantly worse off because of climate change impacts and a poorly managed transition to zero emissions, they have all but been forgotten by parties and candidates.

This month ACOSS surveyed 261 people; 43 percent identified as receiving income supports and 56 percent identified as struggling with cost of living.

Eighty percent of respondents said they are extremely concerned about the impacts of climate change on themselves, and more than 90 percent said it was very important to their vote that candidates supported taking action on climate change

Disproportionate impacts

People with the least are impacted by climate change first, worse, and longest, but have fewer resources to respond, recover, and build resilience to increasing and intensifying extreme weather events. And they always pay more of their incomes on essential services, like energy bills.

ACOSS and the community sector has seen firsthand the increasing devastation of climate change impacts on people experiencing financial and social disadvantage, to their mental and physical health, homes, jobs, general quality of life and sadly loss of life. Exposing them to greater levels of harm and disadvantage, posing a particular threat to First Nations communities and to the future of our young people.

The ACOSS survey found heatwaves were experienced by almost 90 percent of those surveyed and many had experienced other extreme weather events being made worse by climate change, including damaging storms, air pollution, drought, and bushfires.

Some, like Stephen, had experienced multiple events. He told us:

“Two summers ago, I was caught between two mega fires in regional NSW that were out of control for over a month, and I was within ember range. Within the last nine months, I have experienced two flash flood events, both of which caused extensive property damage and loss. I experience a high degree of anxiety because of insecurity due to the risk of further damage to my property, which is uninsured, and as I am dependent on JobSeeker, losing this house would leave me homeless.”

The survey also asked about the types of impacts experienced. Higher energy bills were the most reported impact (90 percent), with 45 percent reporting this was often or very often. Eighty-three percent had experienced frequent impact on mental and physical health, and 58 percent experienced increased financial stress.

Anita, for example, told of struggling with heatwaves:

“Being a renter, despite many requests to landlords for even minor improvements, like outdoor window blinds on north facing windows, they rarely wish to spend that money or allow the tenant to make such changes. These are costs that increase my energy and water bills, on top of the rent I already pay – an added burden and source of emotional distress I have to cope with every day.”

Neglecting those in greatest need

Unfortunately for the more than three million people living below the poverty line, they will see little for themselves in the parties and candidates’ climate change solutions.

Too many policies rely on the market to drive uptake of technologies, like rooftop solar, batteries and electric vehicles, which primarily benefits people with assets and home ownership, enabling them to further reduce their cost of living by significantly cut electricity and transport bills and be paid to export energy.

Where there are subsidies to incentivise uptake, they are not targeted directly to help people on low incomes most are not even means tested.

For example, most parties and candidates are proposing incentives to increase uptake of electric vehicles (EVs), including scrapping import tax and reform fringe benefit tax, or offering generous rebates and low interest loans. All these reforms will primarily benefit people on high incomes.

A study by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling found that high income households are far more likely to replace their cars within five years and far more likely to switch to electric even without incentives. The study found that zero interest loans combined with cheaper EVs (which could be provided through means tested subsidies) will help drive EV uptake for low-income households.

And some subsidies – like the Small-Scale Renewable Energy Target, which makes rooftop solar cheaper – are recovered inequitably, through electricity bills, further exacerbating disadvantage for people on low-income who pay disproportionately more on energy than higher-income households.

If we continue to transition to zero emissions with many of the current policies in place or on offer, we will drive further poverty and inequality in Australia.

A fast, fair, and inclusive plan

There is still time. A fast, fair, and inclusive plan to address climate change, would reduce the impacts from climate change, improve the lives of people facing disadvantage and transform our regions and economy.

We urgently need a plan to ensure that people on lower incomes can access clean technologies like rooftop solar, batteries, and electric vehicles and are not disadvantaged by poorly targeted subsidies, levies, and inequitable cost recovery measures.

We could relieve the suffering of millions of people living in sub-standard housing, create jobs and cut emissions through Government investment in a large-scale energy efficiency and rooftop solar program for low-income housing, including public and private rentals.

We could help close the gap, by partnering, empowering, and supporting First Nations communities to access and manage renewable energy farms, carbon offset projects, manage country and make housing efficient and self-sufficient.

We could give fossil fuel workers and communities certainty, if we establish an Energy Transition Authority, a dedicated agency with quarantined funding to support worker retraining, redeployment and to work with local government and communities on plans to transform and diversify their economies and support their transition.

We can fund a fast, fair, and inclusive climate change plan by phasing out the more than $11.6 billion dollars of public funds currently being spent on polluting fossil fuel subsidies and funding expensive and polluting fossil fuel technologies like fossil carbon capture and storage and gas.

The next federal government and parliament have an opportunity to tackle climate change and reduce poverty and inequality at the same time. It’s not just the smart thing to do but the right thing to do.

Kellie Caught is Program Director – Climate and Energy at ACOSS


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