Tackling climate change and poverty: solving the conundrum


By Demi Delaperelle posted 17 May, 2021 11:38


Tackling climate change and poverty: solving the conundrum

By Karen Rowlingson (Professor of Social Policy, Department of Social Policy, Sociology & Criminology, University of Birmingham) 


Demi Delaperelle (MSc Environment, Development & Politics, University of Birmingham and the Forum for Global Challenges)

The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to tackle the greatest challenges facing humanity. Rather than seeking to tackle them separately, it is crucial to consider the intersections between them and this blog focuses on the links between SDG1: No Poverty and SDG13: Climate Action to ensure that we move forward in ways that tackle both of these important challenges at the same time rather than potentially tackling one at the cost of the other. 

Connecting Climate Change and Poverty 

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, global levels of extreme poverty had been declining for at least a quarter of a century, according to the World Bank, particularly in China, India and other parts of South and East Asia.  The global proportion of people living on less than USD 1.90 a day fell from 37.1 per cent in 1990 to 12.7 per cent in 2012 according to the GSDRC.  However, this reduction in poverty is both caused partly by, and leads to further, economic growth and consumption which increases carbon emissions leading to a negative impact on climate change. This presents us with our conundrum - how do we reduce poverty while at the same time slowing down climate change and protecting the environment? 

If we do not find a way out of this conundrum we will find ourselves locked in another as climate change starts to increase poverty and inequality as extreme weather and reduced food security impacts the poorest most.  Furthermore, climate mitigation policies (CMPs) may also harm the poorest most if those policies focus on increasing the cost of carbon emissions, and not just among the poorest in developing countries.  

Why might Climate Mitigation Policies increase poverty, and how can we avoid this?

In his book, Heat, Greed and Human Need, Ian Gough gives the example of how CMPs could increase poverty by pointing to the fact that a quarter of carbon emissions in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries come from housing and energy use within the home. It might therefore seem appropriate to charge more for high emissions, perhaps through increased VAT.  However, this would only increase poverty as those on the lowest incomes generally spend a higher percentage of their income on gas and electricity than those on higher incomes.  Indeed, 10% of households in the UK are already energy poor so if VAT were increased some groups would either become poorer or go without the basic necessities of gas and electricity, adding to the excess of around 25,000 winter deaths that already occur annually in the UK. Those on higher incomes, however, will be able to afford the increased VAT and so their emissions will not be affected. 

Economists who argue for carbon taxes sometimes suggest helping those in poverty through compensation schemes, either via social security payments generally or specific policies such as the UK Warm Home Discount. Although these can help support those in poverty and keep them warmer, they do little nothing to reduce emissions and so the conundrum continues.  Further tweaks to this approach may help, for example in varying energy prices so that tariffs price energy cheaply for low use but then increasing the cost as people use more. Another approach involves more targeted energy efficiency programmes, for example the UK’s Green Deal. 

Can a unified global goal solve the climate change/poverty conundrum?

While some CMP approaches can certainly help to tackle climate change and poverty at the same time, Ian Gough argues for a more radical approach.  He suggests adopting a new unified global goal: to ensure that everyone today, and in future generations, can meet their basic needs.  This, he argues, will, de facto, include maintaining biophysical planetary limits, otherwise future generations will not be able to meet their needs.  He further argues that this goal would place greater focus on the distribution of existing resources rather than the production of new resources to those currently in poverty. 

This will involve a reduction in “excessive consumption” among the wealthiest to enable the poorest to reach a necessary level of consumption to meet their needs.  Druckman and Jackson (1) have estimated that if every member of the UK population lived on a “decent life budget” poverty would be eradicated and emissions would lower by at least 37%. Thus poverty could be eradicated and emissions substantially lowered.  This, on its own, is still unlikely to help the UK reach its 2050 emissions targets and so further technological, economic and social change would be needed but a redistribution of income and consumption has to be a major part of solving the conundrum of tackling both climate change and poverty in both the Global North and South.

 (1) Druckman, Angela & Jackson, Tim, 2010. "The bare necessities: How much household carbon do we really need?," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 69(9), pages 1794-1804, July.