Can Climate Change And Poverty Both Be Defeated At Once?

CREDIT: Azuri Technologies


CREDIT: Azuri Technologies

A year-long project to measure the economic costs and benefits of fighting climate change, and to harmonize that battle with lifting up the global poor, is getting off the ground.

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate is undertaking the study, and will release its results in September 2014 — just in time for the United Nations’ next big conference on climate change in 2015. It was commissioned by seven countries — Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, South Korea, Norway, Sweden and the UK — and will have a $9 million budget.

“At a time when governments throughout the world are struggling to boost growth, increase access to energy, and improve food security, it is essential that the full costs and benefits of climate policies are more clearly understood,” said Lord Nicholas Stern, Vice-Chair of the Commission. “It cannot be a case of either achieving growth or tackling global warming. It must be both.”

The place where those two goals meet is a critical leverage point. One of the great fears is that aggressive efforts to cut carbon emissions will impede economic expansion and entrench lack of access to energy, thus dragging down the chances of lifting the living standards of the global poor. One of the hopes for the study is it will allay those concerns, and help build an internatonal consensus to tackle greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.

The fact is, not only are the poor most at risk when national economies are held back, they are the most at risk when climate change arrives. The latest research, for instance, pegs southern and southeastern Asia — home to many of the world’s poorest — as one of the areas that could most easily be destabilized by climate shifts. The World Bank warns that within twenty years, rising drought and heat could render 40 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s farmland unsuitable for growing maize, a staple crop in global diets. Much of the continent’s grazing land for livestock could also be degraded past the point of usefulness. In Southeast Asia, the 2010 floods that affected 20 million people in Pakistan could become commonplace, and altered monsoon patterns could wreck the livelihoods of many of India’s farmers.

It’s also important to realize that remaking the global economy so we don’t go down that road is a task that falls primarily on the world’s advanced countries. As a metric for that moral obligation, the Stockholm Environment Institute used what resources, if any, each country has above and beyond the threshold needed to maintain a decent standard of living for its citizens. They concluded that fully one-third of the burden to reduce global carbon emissions falls on the United States, and another third falls on Europe. The need for greater energy per capita amongst the world’s poor is so great that the advanced world really must be out in front of efforts to develop the technology that will deliver that energy cleanly. That means massive clean energy investment, a price on carbon emissions, regulations, the works.

But that task is not all grim responsibility for Americans, either. Renewable energy is more labor-intensive than traditional fossil fuels, meaning it provides more jobs per unit of energy produced. Green jobs are more accessible to those without a college degree, are more likely to add to manufacturing employment, and weathered the 2008 crash better than the average American job. The massive domestic infrastructure work needed to move the country onto clean energy and an advanced electric grid are a huge opportunity to boost America’s own struggling economy and to combat inequality.

Finally, as renewable energy becomes ever more viable in the global market, it can provide new avenues for combating global poverty. Distributed solar in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is proving effective way to quickly reduce energy poverty in even the smallest and most isolated communities without having to wait for the construction of a grid.