Prominent French economist Thomas Piketty says class inequality must be at centre of climate response and calls for progressive carbon taxes

Fiona Harvey
Thomas Piketty: ‘Lots of people, and the more socioeconomic disadvantaged groups, feel that it’s all against them.’ Illustration: Guardian Design

Nov. 22, 2023

Ban private jets to address climate crisis, says Thomas Piketty

 Who are the polluter elite and how can we tackle carbon inequality?

Questions of social and economic class must be at the centre of our response to the climate crisis, to address the huge inequalities between the carbon footprints of the rich and poor and prevent a backlash against climate policies, the economist Thomas Piketty has said.

Regulations will be needed to outlaw goods and services that have unnecessarily high greenhouse gas emissions, such as private jets, outsized vehicles, and flights over short distances, he said in an interview with the Guardian.

Rich countries must also put in place progressive carbon taxes that take into account people’s incomes and how well they are able to reduce their emissions, as current policies usually fail to adjust for people’s real needs.

“We have to put class and the studies of inequality between social classes right at the centre of our analyses of environmental challenges in general,” Piketty said. “If you don’t, you will just not be able to get a majority [of people in favour of strong action] and will not be able to make it.”

The prominent French economist is the author of the seminal work Capital in the Twenty-First Century and one of the world’s leading thinkers on inequality. His work was highly influential after the financial crisis of 2008, and he is increasingly turning his attention to the climate crisis as a co-director of the World Inequality Lab.

To date, while environmentalists have taken aim at developed countries, contrasting their high emissions with the plight of the developing world, any form of class analysis – addressing the concerns of poor people within rich countries – has been largely missing, according to Piketty. “One of the big failures of the environmental movement so far has been that they tend to ignore the class dimension and social inequality. I find it very striking.”

He said the issue of carbon inequality was now one of the world’s most pressing problems. The carbon inequality gap “is now bigger than it has been since the 19th century”, he said. This is a major factor in the attacks that are being made on climate policy from some quarters.

Poorly targeted policies on energy around the world place a greater burden on poor people, for whom energy, food and housing take up far larger shares of household budgets than for the well-off. This is provoking a backlash, according to Piketty.

If climate policies are seen as unfair, affecting people on low incomes while those with luxurious lifestyles carry on untouched, protest movements will emerge, like the “gilets jaunes” who brought France to a standstill five years ago, he said.

“Everybody now understands that everybody would have to make some effort [to cut emissions], it’s not going to be only the rich. But this effort has to be distributed in a way that can be accepted by the population. If you don’t address this, we are going to have a gigantic yellow vest movement everywhere. And that’s a little bit what we have.”

As well as regulation to curb the most unnecessary emissions, Piketty suggests a “progressive carbon tax”, by which everyone would have a free emissions allowance covering ordinary needs, but activities beyond that – such as frequent holiday flights, large houses or large vehicles – would be taxed by larger increments, so that the most polluting activities were subject to “an enormous tax rate”.

A co-pilot boards a private passenger aircraft at Farnborough airport in the south of England.
A co-pilot boards a private passenger aircraft at Farnborough airport in the south of England. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty

He believes such an approach would prove popular. At present, many less well-off people are concerned that they will bear the brunt of measures to curb emissions.


“Lots of people, and the more socioeconomic disadvantaged groups, feel that it’s all against them, and they will be paying for everybody, especially people in rural areas. That’s a big part of the political difficulty we have today,” he said. “We have to try to do everything we can to convince these groups that the people at the top are paying their fair share. You have to start right at the very top, [with] people who would take a private jet.”

The climate crisis is often seen as an opposition of developed countries, the so-called global north, versus developing countries, in the global south. But the many poor people within rich countries are in danger of being wooed by nationalistic or populist politicians who oppose climate action.

Piketty argues that such people need to be reassured that their interests are also being served. “If we want to escape this kind of nationalistic, country versus country feeling, we need to develop some new form of class solidarities that go beyond the nation state,” he said. “We have to convince the middle class and lower income groups in the [global] north that by making the wealthiest groups contribute a lot more and reduce their lifestyle, this will help solve the problem in the [global] south, but this can at the same time solve some of the problems in the north.”

Without such reforms, Piketty said, “we’ll have major climate catastrophe” as current policies are not working.

The Guardian asked the views of 15 leading economists and climate experts and found a high degree of consensus that the large gap between the emissions of the rich and the poor around the world must be addressed through policies better tailored than currently.

[Top: Thomas Piketty: ‘Lots of people, and the more socioeconomic disadvantaged groups, feel that it’s all against them.’ Illustration: Guardian Design]