The climate challenge is encouraging us to work together in meaningful ways, yet the path to climate justice globally requires us to go one step further, combining net zero and poverty zero goals.
Net zero, at the heart of efforts to slow climate change, is the target to balance any CO2 emissions created by human activity with an equal reduction in CO2. It is scientifically measurable, and it is a key way that the world is trying to come together, across national boundaries, to tackle climate change.
Poverty zero is the goal of achieving zero acute poverty as measured by the first of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, SDG1 – No Poverty.
The urgency of both goals must compel us to avoid taking a one-eyed view of CO2 reduction. That is, we must recognize that it is not only about carbon emissions, net zero, or the “Race to Zero.” This will not get us to climate justice. Unless managed carefully, cutting CO2 emissions could lead to increased poverty. It is critical to integrate poverty reduction initiatives with efforts to reduce CO2 emissions to achieve acceptable outcomes. The two-eyed view of climate justice means combining net zero and poverty zero so that the goals reconcile.
The argument for combining poverty zero and net zero targets is reinforced by data. The Poverty Zero Index by Wise Responder plots poverty of the population-weighted average across 127 developing countries and per capita CO2 emissions of those countries (see chart). Poverty reduction in emerging economies over the past 20 years has been accompanied by a steady rise in CO2 emissions. Since 2000, the proportion of people in these countries living in acute poverty dropped from 36% to 16%—a reduction of 56%. This is good news. But during the same period, CO2 emissions in these countries increased 57%, from 2.1 to 3.3 tons per capita, decidedly bad news for the environment.
Poverty goes down, CO2 emission goes up—they are inversely connected. So how do we reduce CO2 emissions and ensure that poverty continues to decline? Net zero data, which tracks distance to climate action targets, should be analyzed together with poverty zero data, which tracks distance to the social minimum goal, so that trade-offs are taken into consideration and impacts are properly assessed.
David Pilling, the Africa editor for the Financial Times, pointedly noted after the European Investment Bank said it would not support gas development in Africa and did not offer any offsetting poverty reduction commitments, “Unless we expect the continent to stay poor forever, its carbon emissions will rise dramatically.”
Pilling is likely to be right unless we choose a path to a climate justice. Poverty reduction is tied to increased energy access and increased gross domestic product (GDP). Net zero targets need to be tied to poverty zero targets with the development of sufficient green investments to ensure a just transition and that we work together for planet and people. Without people pulled up and along, we will not have the political will to achieve our climate targets.
The Poverty Zero Index, which replicates the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (global MPI) developed by Oxford University’s OPHI and the United Nations Development Programme, encompasses a dashboard of standardized poverty metrics that provide a detailed picture of people living in poverty and the deprivations they experience across three dimensions: education, health and living standards. The Poverty Zero Index relies on data sources other than household surveys, which are infrequent, and can be updated on a quarterly basis, allowing users to benchmark the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals framework more effectively and incorporate social aspects into their decision-making.