Squaring the circle: how to increase prosperity while cutting emissions

Solomon Islands

“Climate change is not the cause of inequality. Populations have always been divided between the haves and have-nots, whereas the climate change emergency we now face is a relatively recent threat. But what is clear is that if those at the bottom of the pile are repeatedly hit by climate disasters, eventually they won’t be able to get back up again.”


That’s the stark warning from Jane Wilkinson, Strategic Mitigation Adviser at the EU’s flagship climate change programme GCCA+, and a leading expert on inequality and climate change. “We have a very special opportunity right now to tackle climate change in the context of recovering from Covid-19 - but it’s very possibly the last real opportunity,” she says. “


Inequality comes in many forms, including inequality of wealth, gender, opportunity, education and health. Climate change exacerbates these inequalities and also hinders our ability to adapt, mitigate and become more resilient.


“People who already have fewer resources, poorer education and less capacity to understand the problem have a higher vulnerability to negative impacts when they occur,” says Jane. “They are already more likely to be more vulnerable because they tend to live in places which are least protected and least resilient. In very simple terms, the poorer you are, the less able you are to deal with climate-related disasters when they happen.”


“The poor have always faced different kinds of threats. When it is an exogenous threat - a global threat such as climate change or Covid-19 over which they have no control - they don’t see it coming and they don’t understand it when it happens. Whatever they do to try and resist or respond to it is probably inadequate, if indeed they can respond at all.” This trend looks set to continue. According to recent research, even keeping global heating to the 1.5  Paris Agreement target will mean the wealthiest experience less perceptible climate change than the poorest. 


Spirulina, Chad


The EU understands this well. For more than decade, GCCA+ projects across the globe have aimed to help people in developing countries become more resilient to climate change impacts by tackling wealth and gender inequality. In Chad, for example, as part of an €8 million EU investment, young women are generating additional income from harvesting and processing spirulina, an eco-friendly, nutrient-rich dietary supplement popular with health-conscious westerners. Indigenous landowners in the Solomon Islands have voluntarily given up their rights to logging in exchange for the opportunity to create and sell rainforest carbon offsets. Bee keepers make a living whilst preserving and restoring the precious mangrove forests which protect Suriname’s vulnerable coastline. In Timor Leste, thanks to rainfall collection tanks, women and girls no longer have walk two kilometres to fetch water in heavy containers. Clean cook stoves distributed to women in Tanzania help reduce deforestation and harmful smoke emissions.


Clean cook stoves distributed to women in Tanzania


Whilst these examples - and hundreds of others - bear witness to the EU’s commitment to tackling inequality and climate change, much more remains to be done. “Inequality exists both within countries and between countries,” says Jane. “It’s true that inequality between countries has reduced over the last thirty to forty years, but that’s mainly due to the scale of industrialisation in China and India. Inequality within countries has increased everywhere.”


Carbon inequality is increasingly significant. Research by Oxfam shows that the worlds richest 10 percent of people cause half of all greenhouse gas emissions, whilst the poorest 50 percent contribute approximately just one tenth. “Carbon inequality describes how the people who are most threatened by climate change - those who are highly vulnerable simply because of where they live - have not contributed to historical carbon, and still aren’t contributing to historical carbon, are getting hit harder than anybody else. It’s when individuals get into the US$100+ a day income bracket that you get really exponential carbon usage,” says Jane.


Leapfrog technologies and nature-based solutions could play a major role in helping people move out of extreme poverty and into the middle classes without increasing their carbon footprint. “The problem isn’t really the middle classes - by which we mean those earning between US$10 and US$100 a day,” she adds. “Middle class contribution to carbon use over the last 20 years hasn’t changed proportionally - they were, and still are, contributing about 40 percent of carbon emissions, even though there are many hundreds of millions more of them. However, strong government policies can really make a difference - for example in energy efficiency, housing, building and public transport.”


The forthcoming COP26 climate change talks - scheduled for November in Glasgow after being postponed from 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic - is an opportunity for the EU to once again take the lead on ambitious climate finance targets aimed at tackling carbon inequality. “There is plenty of evidence to suggest that increasingly prosperity whilst reducing emissions is mutually compatible,” says Jane. “With the new administration in the US, my pendulum has swung slightly to the optimistic side!”