Policy Coherence for Development? The Effects of Climate Change on Poverty

One of the problems with how we address climate change is the way in which we categorise it as a distinct problem, add it to a list of existing concerns and then assign it to some specially created policy team. In Member States it is common for the structure of governing to stay pretty much the same, but with the addition of a climate change Minister. At EU level, the Commission created an additional Directorate General, DG Climate Action (DG CLIMA). True, climate change is supposed to be mainstreamed in all other DGs policies – DGs Energy, Enterprise and Industry, Mobility and Transport, Environment, Competition, Health and Consumers, Trade, Justice, Regional Policy, Taxation and Customs Union, EuropeAid Development and Cooperation, etc, etc. But evidence of this mainstreaming is hard to find – at least in any concrete outcomes, even if documents relating to these other areas now contain a paragraph relating to climate change.

Eradicating poverty is both an EU and internationally agreed goal. Image GNU FDL License to Md. Tanvirul Islam, via Wikipedia Commons

The problem is that climate change affects and is affected by every single one of these areas. It is not a mere additional concern to add to a pot of existing interests. It is the overarching challenge facing humanity, not a peripheral concern. Taking the example of the Commission’s DG Development and Cooperation – EuropeAid (DG DEVCO), we can illustrate exactly why climate change is not a peripheral issue, but at the very heart of the EU’s development goals. These goals include poverty eradication, sustainable development, and achieving the Millennium Development Goals. There is a commitment to, and legal basis for,  promoting policy coherence for development from the Council of the EU (2005) and Art.208 in Lisbon Treaty, which is about ensuring that the external impacts of other EU policies – or national policies – do not undermine the aims and objectives of EU development cooperation.

Goals like poverty eradication and international sustainable development are clearly noble goals, and QCEA has worked on issues relating to economic justice for a long time. Doing advocacy towards the European institutions on this area reflects the acknowledgement that the actions of the EU and its Member States, in areas from trade policy to energy policy, have implications for the incidence of poverty both within and beyond the EU’s borders. What’s more, Quakers, like many others, believe in the fundamental equality of all human beings.

Yet it is apparent that many of our individual actions, and more significantly the sum of these actions, add up to a system – an economic system – which denies this fundamental equality. If you don’t think this is the case, then I ask you to explain how it is that 50 000 people a day die from preventable poverty related causes (Pogge 2003b: 11) whilst the richest 1% of the world own approximately 40% of all wealth. Or to explain why beyond meeting our own basic needs and a level of material sufficiency, we continue to accumulate wealth whilst others die for the lack of it. However, I do not intend to discuss moral philosophy or economic systems here. I want to consider the goal of ending global poverty and more specifically, why the issue of poverty eradication cannot be considered in isolation from climate change mitigation and adaptation. The reason for this is the current and future effects of climate change on global poverty (the majority of which is in developing countries – the Global South – but also includes those living in poverty in developed and newly industrialised countries).

Climate related environmental pressures, including increasingly unpredictable rainfall, flooding, drought and desertification, more extreme and violent weather patterns and sea level rise, all have dire implications for the incidence of poverty. A growing number of Southern NGOs are seeking recognition of the fact that despite ‘their minimal, per-person contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts of climate change will disproportionately affect people living in poverty in developing countries’ (Simms et al 2004: 29), for the following reasons.

Firstly, the poor have a lower capacity to adapt to the unpredictability and extremes that climate change will bring, being ‘highly vulnerable to even small external shocks that may affect their everyday production activities and living conditions. Lack of savings and limited support from the state make these people unable to hedge against the risks that disrupt their livelihood security’ (FitzRoy and Papyrakis 2010: 80). Limited access to education combined with the priority of meeting immediate subsistence needs overshadow longer-term threats like climate change. Less developed countries (LDCs) generally lack the capacity, resources and structures to invest in mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, a phenomenon which will amplify existing vulnerability ‘due to the dependence of their economies and livelihoods on climate sensitive natural resources’ (Practical Action 2009a: 1).

Secondly, there are serious health implications for the ‘poorest billions living in tropical and semi-tropical regions…In warmer conditions, malaria-carrying mosquitoes will spread more easily to areas north and south of the tropics, as well as into higher elevations’ (FitzRoy and Papyrakis 2010: 65). A 2°C temperature rise could expose another 40 to 60 million people in Africa to malaria, and an increasing incidence of droughts and floods will both, ‘in different ways, favour the spread of water-borne diarrhoeal diseases’ (Simms et al 2004: 10).

People depending on subsistence agriculture in ecologically fragile regions are highly susceptible to the effects of climate change. Image CC BY Amcaja

Thirdly, agriculture and food sovereignty, especially for the poor, are threatened by climate change. Unpredictable rainfall patterns and extreme weather pose a serious threat when combined with environmental pressures such as deforestation and energy intensive agribusiness (often the former for the latter, for example, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest provides low-grade pasture land for cattle, to help meet high demand in the carnivorous North, and growing demand from burgeoning middle-classes in LDCs). An increasing reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and GM technology is contributing toward climate-led biodiversity loss. In areas like Sub-Saharan Africa, where livelihoods rely on small-scale, rain-fed subsistence farming, low agricultural productivity and harsh natural environments mean people ‘depend directly on genetic, species and ecosystem diversity to support their way of life. As a result of this dependency, any impact that climate change has on natural systems will threaten the livelihoods, food intake and health of the population’ (Simms et al 2008: 3). The possibility of large-scale agricultural collapse could lead ‘to astronomical food prices, mass starvation and migration’ (FitzRoy and Papyrakis 2010: 60).

Water security is also threatened by climate change, altering rainfall patterns, lake levels, river flows, and groundwater refill. Industrial agriculture has added to this pressure, as water-intensive farming methods have depleted many groundwater resources and aquifers. The trend toward the extraction of unconventional fossil fuels, oil shale and shale gas, which requires huge amounts of water, is another addition to climate-led water stress. Moderate projections suggest that ‘by 2025 the proportion of the world’s population living in countries of significant water stress will increase from approximately 34 per cent (1995) to 63 per cent – some six billion people, the same number of people as are currently living on Earth’ (Simms et al 2004: 10).

Fourthly, the increased incidence and intensity of natural disasters, including hurricanes, flooding, and droughts will affect the poor most, largely because they already do: ‘all but two of the 40 worst ‘natural’ catastrophes between 1970 and 2001 were in developing countries and almost half were climate-related’ (Practical Action 2009b: 3). As well as living in areas most prone to natural disasters, low-lying land liable to flood and arid areas prone to drought, poor communities tend to be dependent on farming and fishing, livelihoods sensitive to changes in weather patterns. Combined with a lack of resources to prepare for disaster or coordinate disaster relief, it is not surprising that ‘ninety-seven of every hundred deaths caused by a natural disaster occur in the developing world’ (Practical Action 2009b: 3). More frequent disasters will mean households ‘have shorter periods in which to recover, thus increasing the possibility of being pushed into a poverty-trap’ (Stern 2006: 101-102).

Finally, sea level rise will have serious implications for poverty, potentially displacing billions, flooding arable land, destroying ecosystems, polluting groundwater in coastal regions and placing further strain on food supply. Along with more extreme weather events, sea level rise will create ‘‘climate refugees’, intensify conflict over resources, and lead to millions more deaths from disease and starvation’ (Jubilee Debt Campaign 2007: 2). A 40cm rise in sea level ‘would increase the number of people at risk of annual flooding from 75 million to 206 million – 90% of those at risk will be in Africa and Asia’ (Practical Action 2009b: 3). Sea level rise of several meters could create an unprecedented scale of displacement, mass death and conflict over ever-scarcer resources. This prospect may not be so far fetched given the unexpectedly rapid break up of Antarctic ice-shelves suggests, and is even more likely if the climatic tipping point of a 2°C temperature rise is passed and causes the release of oceanic carbon sinks and methane from melting permafrosts.

The majority of the global poor live in developing countries, but there are many living in poverty in Europe and other rich nations too. Climate change, and its associated drivers (i.e. the burning of a finite resource – fossil fuels – and price volatility and increases as they become scarcer), will hit these people harder too, with fuel poverty being one obvious area. In our globalised economy, where much food in Europe is imported, it is also likely to be the poor who cannot afford higher prices in potential times of climate exacerbated food scarcity.

The point of all this is that climate change will entrench and increase poverty. The conditions that enable our survival and flourishing are being altered by our exploitation of the natural world. ‘Without urgent and decisive policy measures targeting population levels, unsustainable consumerism and dirty technologies’ (FitzRoy and Papyrakis 2010: 47), we cannot create the conditions necessary for sustainable poverty eradication.  For ‘if the affluent are already utilising the earth’s resources at four times the sustainable rate, how can the rest of humanity continue to become more affluent – without ecological and geopolitically induced catastrophe – if merely a few minor redesigns are made?’ (Hayward 2008: 11).

It is this problem – of huge poverty in a radically unequal world teetering on the edge of ecological collapse – that necessitates a move towards sustainable development paths in the poorest countries, a move away from unsustainable materialistic consumption-based affluence of the very rich, and a thorough examination of the assumptions underlying our economic systems, not least economic growth and inequality. For it was the fossil-fuel based industrialisation over the last 200 years of today’s developed countries that is the main contributor to anthropogenic climate change, as well as (one of) the root(s) of their current material economic wealth. Yet if developing countries follow the same carbon-intensive development path, the problem of climate change will be dramatically worsened, which, as we have seen, counter-productively harms the poor most. Addressing this is not only a moral imperative and a question of justice: it is a practical necessity, because developing countries ‘won’t sacrifice their right to development so that the rich world can continue living in an unsustainable way’ (Jones and Edwards 2009: 5).

If the EU were to take its commitment to policy coherence for development seriously, everything from trade to energy policy would look very different. Earlier this year, at a meeting with a Member State energy attaché, QCEA was told that when it comes to international climate commitments, economic development and the Millennium Development Goals, it is an “architectural flaw” that these discussions take place in DG DEVCO or DG CLIMA, and not in/with DG ENERGY, because of the huge impact that energy choices have on these issues.  Indeed, the Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, in a speech made earlier this year to the European Parliament, recognised that:

Development Commissioner, Andris Piebalgs. Image CC BY-ND 2.0 Saeima, via Flickr

“We must act quickly, and act across sectors. Because the whole energy for development argument quickly raises a raft of other issues, not least on climate change, which in itself has the potential to derail development efforts…

“Let’s take Africa, for example. This continent has enormous untapped renewable energy resources, while many areas are not yet covered by transmission and distribution infrastructure. The possibility thus exists in many areas to “skip” a technological generation and, by using local renewable production, avoid the significant costs that come with electricity distribution infrastructure, which in the EU accounts for up to 50% of final domestic tariffs. In this way, we will not only be boosting significantly the competitiveness of renewable generated electricity compared to more traditional forms, we will also be creating jobs and growth.”

But energy is not in Development Commissioner Piepalgs’ remit, just as the MDGs or poverty eradication are not a priority for Energy Commissioner Oettinger, despite the fact that the way we produce and consume energy is the single biggest contributor to climate change, which will in turn undermine all efforts to eradicate poverty unless tackled with the urgency and priority it requires. Policy coherence for development is a long way off precisely because the effects of climate change will entrench and increase poverty.


FitzRoy, Felix R. and Papyrakis, Elissaios (2010): An Introduction to Climate Change Economics and Policy. London: Earthscan
Hayward, Tim (2008): ‘On the Nature of Our Debt to the Global Poor’ in Journal of Social Philosophy, Volume 39, Issue 1, pp. 1-19.
Jones, Tim and Edwards, Sarah (2009): The Climate Debt Crisis: Why paying our dues is essential for tackling climate change. Jubilee Debt Campaign and World Development Movement.
Jubilee Debt Campaign – JDC (2007): Debt and Climate Change. Produced by Jubilee Debt Campaign, in association with Practical Action, World Development Movement and WWF. Available here
Pogge, Thomas (2003b): The  First  UN  Millennium  Development  Goal: A  Cause  for  Celebration? Thomas Pogge’s 11th September Lectures at the University of Oslo Global Justice Symposium, 9-13 September 2003. Available here
Practical Action (2009a): Poverty, Justice and Climate Change: Policy Briefing. Practical Action, Technology Challenging Poverty. Available here
Practical Action (2009b): Stop Climate Injustice: Climate Change is Killing the Developing World. Practical Action, Technology Challenging Poverty. Available here
Simms, Andrew,  Magrath, John and Reid, Hannah (2004): Up in Smoke? Threats from, and responses to, the impact of global warming on human development. New Economics Foundation. Available here
Simms, Andrew,  Leitch, Daisy,  Harling, Pamela and Johnson, Victoria (2008): The Up in Smoke reports: a summary.  New Economics Foundation. Available here
Stern, Nicolas (2006): Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change. HM Treasury.

About Rachel Tansey

Rachel was a QCEA Programme Assistant on Sustainable Energy Security between November 2010 and November 2011.


  1. Meg Hill

    Thank you for such a clear overview. At a time when the Religious Society of Friends is committing itself to the idea of sustainability, we need to understand the big picture. For me, the whole thing is coming to rest on the issue of equality. As Ghandi said, “There is enough for our need, but not for our greed.”

  2. Pingback: Neo-liberal growth-based economics: Bad for the climate, great for inequality? | qceablog

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