Do not bother the poor with the problems caused by the rich

Heleen de Coninck | 26 March 2013

Inequalities within countries are largely ignored in the UN climate negotiations. This must change, but the global poor should be spared.

Inequalities within countries are largely ignored in the UN climate negotiations. This must change. Climate mitigation policies should be aimed at the rising middle class and industrialising parts of the countries – regardless of whether they live in large emerging economies or in low-income countries. In the meantime, the global poor should be spared – regardless of whether they live in China or in Chad.

Dave Woodward is right when he states that carbon emissions need to be reduced as the impacts of climate change are inequality-enhancing. The poor are most vulnerable to climate change. But his suggestion that inequality policies need to be made conditional on green or sustainable growth is going a step too far and is ignoring the complexities around inequality within developing countries and in the geopolitics of climate and energy.

Carbon policies are generally implemented by national governments. Discussions in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the international organisation for climate change adaptation and mitigation activities that runs the Kyoto Protocol and the current international climate negotiations, also take place between countries. A core principle in the climate negotiations has been and remains “common but differentiated responsibilities”, reflecting that all countries contribute to climate change, but also have different sizes of contributions as well as different means to address the problem. A country like Mali not only contributes close to nothing to the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, it also has fewer capabilities, lower access to technology and fewer monetary means to develop renewable energy and to invest in installations and practices to adapt to climate changes than, say, Germany or South Africa.

Inequalities between countries are widely recognised and addressed in the UNFCCC treaty text. But the UNFCCC turns a blind eye on inequalities within countries. By now, almost all developing countries have a thriving and growing middle class, which is getting increasingly wealthy – from China to Chad. And almost all developing countries have a large share of the population that is very poor. In addition, almost all developing countries are developing an industrializing part of the economy – the development of larger companies that manufacture, build, organise, grow and finance. A range of industrial facilities and activities, with associated energy and water use and CO2 emissions, are appearing in almost all developing countries.

Common but differentiated responsibilities need to apply within countries as much as between countries. The scope for emission reductions with the emerging middle class and the rising industry is huge – and has welcome co-benefits. For the urban middle class, for instance their rising car use in congested urban areas contributes to congestion, air pollution and health problems. Newly built industry that does not use the latest, cleanest technology is both wasteful and polluting. There is no problem with applying low-carbon policies to these sectors.

But the poor should be left alone. The 3 billion people around the world without access to clean cooking fuels and 1.3 billion without electricity need to be provided with modern energy urgently, so they can develop. If this energy can be renewable and low-carbon, that should be done. But where fossil fuels are the better option, the poor should not be prevented from using fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency argues that meeting the basic energy needs of these people with fossil fuels by 2030 would add only 1% to global energy use in that year, and 0,6% to global CO2 emissions.

It is clear that the challenge of sustainable growth and low-carbon development lies with the sectors that have growing emissions and emission reduction potential. Do not bother the poor with the problems caused by the rich.


Kharas, H. (2010) The emerging middle class in developing countries, OECD Development Centre, Working Paper No. 285

International Energy Agency (2012) World Energy Outlook 2012. IEA: Paris

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