Is tackling carbon a solution to tackling poverty?
Niall Anthony Murphy
At the UN’s first conference on the environment in Stockholm in 1972 the main speaker was Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her ambiguous words have shaped the climate debate ever since. “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?”
The observation highlighted what is now called carbon colonialism. It’s a concern that those who have benefitted the most from polluting the environment are now dictating to everyone else how they should treat the environment. The west has achieved higher standards of living through reckless industrialisation and now wants to pull the ladder up behind itself, and prevent developing countries from growing in the same way.
Gandhi’s words were hugely controversial, and still are. Some believe it set up a conflict in the years that followed between tackling poverty and tackling climate change, as though only one can be achieved. But with time perspectives have evolved. India is more aware that its huge densely populated nation is vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, and developed countries have accepted that tackling poverty is an essential part of tackling global warming.
Offsetting as an Economic Tool
Carbon offsetting, which contributes to sustainable development goals, is meant as a neat solution to this problem. Transfers of cash to developing countries is a notoriously inefficient approach to raising communities out of poverty. Sustainable development projects are about passing on skills and capital that can be harnessed for the future. Independent of any charitable donation or subsidy.
Investing in alternative energy projects in the developing world would be one of the strongest examples of how this solution works. A company in the west can offset its carbon footprint through transferring some of its wealth to the developing world. This money is used to create an alternative energy project which is of use to a community for many years and from which other economic activity can grow and rely. Also it creates a workforce who are trained in the production of alternative energies which increases potential for other such projects.
Transformative investment like this is possible, but rare. Though this does not take from smaller projects that ultimately have the same aim - to create a win win situation where a company can reduce its carbon impact and invest in poorer communities.
Isn’t it just greenwashing?
Greenwashing is a type of environmental propaganda. It happens when companies are more interested in appearing environmentally aware and responsible, rather than proactively trying to change their own behaviour.
So the greenwashing argument against carbon offsetting is it allows companies to pollute as much as they want. They will get good publicity from their offset investments, while never truly addressing the underlying causes in their processes that lead to pollution.
It is obvious then, that to avoid this accusation, any company engaged in carbon offsetting must also have a plan in place to reduce its own carbon footprint at home. Failure to do so would not be in the spirit of climate change action, and would therefore attract criticism.
But too often carbon offsetting is viewed from a developed world perspective – what does a company get out of it for themselves people wonder. However, it actually facilitates the transfer of wealth from richer parts of the world to poorer parts voluntarily, in the form of sustainable financing, which is a remarkable achievement.
The future: The Squad is Coming
It’s important to realise that carbon offsetting projects in the developing world are not happening in a vacuum. The US Presidential election for 2020 is already up and running and the Democratic party is emphasising green jobs, and a proposed Green New Deal. Alternative energy projects are seen as the future for parts of the United States left behind by the tech bubble and abandoned by manufacturing.
The Nobel Economics Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz is an enthusiastic supporter and says: “The Green New Deal would stimulate demand, ensuring that all available resources were used; and the transition to the green economy would likely usher in a new boom.”
So as the world economy turns more green, it is imperative that the developing world are not left behind yet again. Carbon offsetting projects, from the modest to the ambitious, are steps to ensure developing nations can compete in this new green market. They need the infrastructure, capital and training to move their economies towards alternative energy, recycling and waste reduction.
The fight against poverty and climate change need not be opposing forces. In fact, it can be the exact same fight.