Save the Poor from Climate Change

 Friday, December 04, 2009

By Caroline Boin

Cutting carbon emissions will not cut death and suffering. More than 75 world leaders meet in Copenhagen over the next two weeks to attempt an agreement on climate change. They should start by admitting the political and economic failure of the Kyoto Protocol: its prohibitive costs will prevent us from addressing other, more pressing problems.

The current Kyoto agreement expiring in 2012 committed countries to reducing their collective greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% from the 1990 level by 2008-2012. But major countries like Australia and Canada are expected to miss their targets. And many will only meet them through so-called "additional measures," which are of dubious efficiency and subject to abuse. For example, the Clean Development Mechanism allows rich countries to invest in low-carbon projects in poor countries instead of cutting their own emissions.

The European Union, with by far the most developed climate mitigation system, will meet its Kyoto target–but not its own target of 20% by 2020: it expects to reach only 14%, which translates to a paltry 6.4% cut in its own emissions once you take out the "additional measures."

These failed arbitrary caps have created vested business interests that profit from subsidies and regulations–and they desperately want an extension beyond 2012: the global low-carbon economy was worth nearly $US5 trillion last financial year, according to a report for the British Government. And even if everyone met Kyoto targets, the result would be an insignificant dent in temperature.

Emission caps have high costs and unclear benefits. There is a better way: enabling people to deal with a changing climate through economic growth holds a dual promise. It will allow us to address urgent problems that afflict the poor today, like malaria and hunger. And it will also empower people to deal with those problems in the future, should they get worse because of climate change.

There is a lot of discussion about the predicted effects of climate change. Will diseases like malaria rise? Will there be water and food shortages? Will extreme weather events like Hurricane Ida become more frequent?

In fact, these problems could hardly be worse for the majority of the world’s people right now–simply because they are poor. Malaria kills about a million people every year. Diarrhoea from dirty water kills 1.5 million children every year. The United Nations has just dropped its target of halving hunger by 2015 as the number of hungry people rises.

It was economic growth that allowed now-wealthy countries to rid themselves of hunger and diseases like malaria. Wealth means health, potable water and a wide array of life-saving technologies, from hybrid seeds that increase crop yields to vaccines that protect us from once-deadly diseases.

Similarly, economic growth and technological development allow us to overcome events like droughts, floods and storms. In fact, deaths from extreme weather events have fallen 95% since the 1920s. Hurricane Ida tragically killed 192 people in El Salvador recently but that number pales in comparison to hurricanes that used to kill thousands just decades ago. Extreme weather events disproportionately affect the poor because they do not have robust dwellings, early-warning systems, flood defences or good roads.

To build that infrastructure, the poor need, once again, economic growth. This will not come from increased foreign aid or subsidies for “clean” technologies–all too often, these have simply enriched ruling cliques and interest-groups, allowing little development.

As the climate changes, governments need to accept the reality that growth is good. They need to trust their people with economic freedoms, such as the right to own property. Growth would enable people to invest in robust buildings and get technologies that would drastically reduce their exposure to climate extremes.

They must also get rid of the subsidies, taxes and regulations that undermine economic growth and encourage waste. It is not climate change but government policies, such as prohibitive tariffs on medicine, subsidies to farmers for water-use and restrictions on food exports, that cause poverty and poor health.

 Drastic reduction of carbon emissions will stifle the very economic growth that is needed to reduce poverty and vulnerability. Governments must stop blaming their mistakes on climate change: they must empower people to fight poverty today and whatever the climate brings tomorrow.

Caroline Boin is a Project Director at International Policy Network, London, an independent think-tank working on economic development.