Poverty and climate change

Mahmoud Mohieldin
Thursday 25 Aug 2022

Action on climate change is being steered by the developed countries without regard for the growing levels of poverty and threatened living standards in the developing world.


In 2015 when the UN announced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the first of which is the elimination of extreme poverty, the World Bank set the threshold for this at an income of less than $1.90 per person per day. 

This year, in the light of increased prices the world over, the Bank changed the extreme poverty level to $2.15. Anyone who earns less than this will be ranked extremely poor by international standards. 

The World Bank is the institution responsible for establishing the methodology for measuring poverty. It uses two other indicators to help determine the general poverty level in developing nations, and these too have been changed to reflect inflation. For middle-income countries, the extreme poverty and general poverty levels were raised from $3.20 and $5.50 to $3.65 and $6.85, respectively. 

It must be stressed that these changes only reflect changes in the prices of the same types of goods or services and that each country has its own general and extreme poverty lines that should be changed in like manner so that governments can identify those who most need help through public policies. 

In addition to per capita poverty figures based on individual incomes and consumption, there should also be another index to measure the poverty of a whole society. This would refine the definition of poverty by correlating it with changes in the revenues of the state and increasing wealth. The definition should also be further developed by including non-monetary aspects of poverty and deprivation. 

According to the adjusted extreme poverty index, the number of people falling below this threshold surpassed 700 million by 2017. A study by the Oxfam Foundation found that the number reached 860 million in the first quarter of this year and that those who suffer from hunger reached 827 million this year. 

These figures do not reflect the impact of the food and energy price hikes that occurred after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, which are likely to add another 65 million people to the ranks of those suffering from extreme poverty. 

Such is the current status of the first of the SDGs, and it tells us that the world is worse off today than it was seven years ago when the UN announced the development targets it hoped to attain by 2030. As I have said before, we cannot blame this deterioration on global crises and external shocks alone and ignore the role played by poor public policies, ineffective development institutions, and the waste of the resources at their disposal. 

According to reports on the SDGs for 2019, the world was already off target on meeting these goals, which is to say before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. 

International efforts then failed to fight the pandemic in an equitable manner, whether in terms of making vaccines available or providing financial support to developing nations, which will now have to pay dearly for all the liquidity the developed countries injected into their economies and then for the impacts of withdrawing this by cancelling monetary easing programmes and raising interest rates and thus increasing the costs of loans for developing economies. 

Then the Ukraine war hit with its attendant fallout, aggravating existing crises and exposing flaws in economic performance that could no longer be disguised by printing more money or by selling short-term loans to weary and already loan-encumbered economies. 

Given the current state of the global economy, with its declining growth rates, looming stagnation, crises in vital sectors such as food and energy, and the mounting costs and risks of international debt, it would be very dangerous to continue to apply an approach to sustainability policies that reduces it to only one aspect of climate action, namely carbon reduction, crucial as this is. 

Action on climate change is currently being steered by a coterie of countries that have attained high degrees of economic growth, living standards, standards of healthcare and education, and the elimination of poverty, and they are giving advice and dictating conditions regarding sustainability that suit their circumstances and conflict with the priorities and challenges of the developing nations.  

As a result, the 17 SDGs have been shunted aside, with the exception of the 13th which calls for climate action. But instead of addressing this goal as comprehensively and fairly as was intended, this coterie of countries has focused exclusively on greenhouse-gas emissions, crucial as this undoubtedly is, and neglected the need to help the developing nations to move to alternative, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power that require huge investment and advanced technologies.

Whether this omission was intentional or inadvertent, it is all the more inexcusable given that the developing nations contribute only a small fraction of the total harmful emissions. 

Moreover, those countries that have virtually monopolised the setting of priorities for action on the climate have overlooked the cumulative harm that they have inflicted on the planet through the polluting technologies they have been using since the First Industrial Revolution. They have given little thought to the support they owe to the developing nations to help them to safeguard themselves against the impacts of global warming on weather conditions, infrastructure and coastlines, and the costs of safeguarding food and water supplies and other vital sectors. 

Their consideration for the needs of the developing nations barely extends beyond pledges, largely unfulfilled, to existentially threatened underdeveloped islands whose modest budgetary resources are already stretched to the limit and, even if they allocated their entire budgets to climate action, would only be able to meet a small portion of the funding outlays required.

Imagine if the developing nations were to follow the advice to borrow more on the international markets to spend on climate action. This would totally undermine their financial foundations and encumber future generations with unsustainable economic burdens that should never be visited on them in the first place. 

Should the developed countries remind us of their pledges to the developing nations, such as the famous $100 billion a year that they announced at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, the reply is ready to hand. According to the most favourable estimate, announced before last year’s Glasgow Summit, only 79 per cent of the required sum was forthcoming that year. 

Moreover, methods of estimating it vary. Oxfam maintains that only 20 per cent of the amount was met and that the spending tended to be biased towards measures to reduce harmful emissions while adaptation did not receive its fair share of attention. 

In addition, reports indicate that only seven out of 23 developed nations have actually fulfilled their pledges. These countries are Sweden, France, Norway, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. Only the first four of these have announced they will remain committed up to 2025. It should be born in mind that $100 billion a year only covers five per cent of the total spending needed for climate action in the developing nations.

Clearly there is a need to re-contextualise climate action in the framework of the SDGs. The world needs to stop the disconnected-islands approach to international cooperation that has harmed sustainable development and poverty eradication efforts and has not served climate action. By contrast, an integrated approach to funding that taps all available sources is needed that will remind us that every dollar spent on climate adaptation generates two to ten dollars of economic benefits, as was shown in a recent report by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the LSE in London. 

Global warming has severely detrimental effects on poverty levels, which are aggravated by deterioration in the agricultural and food sectors, in water security and healthcare, and by population displacements. Conversely, investing in human capital through education and healthcare, in infrastructure, technology, and digital transformation, and in the sustainability related areas of the economy and the environment produce positive and mutually supporting effects.

* An Arabic version of this article appeared on Wednesday in Asharq Al-Awsat.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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