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Study: Reducing poverty and climate goals aren’t at odds

Image of slum housing.
Enlarge / Eliminating extreme poverty won’t necessarily boost emissions as much as people fear.

The United Nations’ first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) aims to eradicate poverty around the world. If implemented, however, it might see people consume more—drive more often, buy more products—and, thus, produce more carbon emissions, fueling climate change. “With more money to spend, and therefore more consumption, there is usually a higher carbon footprint,” Benedikt Bruckner, a master’s student of energy and environmental sciences at the University of Groningen, told Ars.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, according to a new study put out by Bruckner, other researchers out of Groningen, and colleagues in the United States and China.

Published in Nature, the research makes use of high-level data about consumption patterns to show that reaching SDG 1—which shoots to move every person out of extreme poverty (under $1.90 per day) and half of everyone above the poverty lines of their respective countries—won’t excessively fuel climate change.

‘A beautiful dataset’

The paper aims to address a pressing question: “What are the carbon cost implications of poverty alleviation?” Klaus Hubacek, another author of the paper and a professor in science, technology, and society at the U of G told Ars. Back in 2017, Hubacek and his colleagues performed a similar study looking into the trade-offs between carbon emissions and poverty alleviation. For this work, they used a large dataset from the World Bank that contained consumption data broken down into four income categories: lowest, low, middle, and high.

For this new study, the team used a revised World Bank dataset (to which they contributed) that distinguishes between 201 different expenditure categories in 116 different countries—in all representing 90 percent of the population. But the team was not able to use all the data in the set, and there were some gaps. For instance, Japan doesn’t have info at an individual level, only a household level. All the same: “It’s a much finer grade, a beautiful dataset,” Hubacek said.

The team used this data to create a highly detailed picture of the carbon footprints of consumption for people in each group and country. The dataset also includes information about the poverty lines within each country. The team then looked at the emissions data on the people already above the poverty line to determine the effects of lifting more people out of poverty. In all, they found that lifting more than one billion people out of poverty worldwide would only increase global carbon emissions by between 1.6 and 2.1 percent.

Must be the money

This is still an increase in emissions. But a larger issue is that many of the wealthiest people in the world consume more and, thus, create more emissions. Hubacek noted that the paper doesn’t explicitly look at the difference between the amounts of carbon produced by the wealthy compared to those living in poverty.

However, in a press release, Bruckner noted that the richest 1 percent of the world produced 50 percent more emissions than those in the poorest 50 percent. Hubacek noted, for instance, that the average European produces around six tons of carbon per year, while most people living in poverty emit less than one ton.

As such, the world meeting its climate goals wouldn’t be hindered by efforts to lift people out of poverty. But some of the richest countries and people around the globe need to start consuming less. “Alleviating poverty is really not a big problem, and will not lead us to higher carbon emissions globally,” Bruckner said.

Nature, 2022. DOI: 10.1038/s41893-021-00842-z (About DOIs)

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