2012-10-12

Co.Exist

Can We Fight Poverty And Climate Change At The Same Time?

Combining humanitarian aid, economic development and environmental improvement may be the only way for the global community to bolster its resilience to 21st-century challenges.

David Biello

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Environmental, humanitarian and economic challenges do not exist in isolation, but that is how the world most often deals with them. To take just one example: one of the key challenges facing cities around the globe in the 21st century is flooding. Flooding is determined by environmental factors, from climate change to overcrowding of floodplains with habitation. Flooding is also often a humanitarian disaster when it strikes and can be an aftereffect of big development projects, like hydroelectric dams.

Or take the metals in a cell phone. As Judith Rodin, president of the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation, noted at her organization’s event about "resilient livelihoods" on September 25, tungsten is the "metal that puts the buzz in your cell phone." Mining that tungsten is an economic development opportunity but also too often creates a humanitarian crisis when such economically valuable minerals become a source of conflict—as has been the case in the eastern Congo. At the same time, the mining practices used to extract such metals can be more or less bad for the environment and human health.

The U.N. buzz phrase of the last decade—"sustainable development"—is slowly morphing into a new sustainable buzzword for the development and humanitarian communities: resilience. Resilience means, at its core, an ability to bounce back from stress in a healthy way, Rodin said. But, as development expert Edward Carr of the University of South Carolina rightly notes, resilience of what, to what? Enabling the poor to be resilient in the face of challenges like climate change may require a fundamental rethinking of the methods used to address both poverty and global warming.

After all, poverty and climate change are inextricably linked: The developed world has progressed, thanks to fossil fuels, and burning them has resulted in the elevated levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trapping heat, raising global temperatures and spawning weird weather. To resolve the energy poverty of billions will likely require burning more fossil fuels, but preventing catastrophic climate change definitely requires reducing concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gas. "You cannot tackle one without the other," Rodin noted.

Thus far, despite some recent success in reducing poverty thanks to rising living standards in China, the world has mostly failed to truly tackle either. Although drought in the Horn of Africa is predictable and cyclical even under the present climate, famine still stalks the region. "To have drought at the level of 2011 and no deaths in Ethiopia? That was progress," argued Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme at the Rockefeller event. Yet, thousands perished of starvation throughout the region and populations in Somalia, Kenya and elsewhere remain reliant on aid—a decades-long failure that also encompasses civil war and political instability. "How do you eventually graduate from aid?" asks Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, CEO of Vestergaard Frandsen, a Denmark-based company that makes disease-control products.

Plus, "we are not winning the war on hunger. We are losing it," argued European Union Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva at the Rockefeller event. One of the big reasons that levels of hunger have started to grow again is the impact of climate change—variable weather means variable harvests whereas programs to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of cars have ended up taking away food to make biofuels like ethanol. The lack of investment in agricultural innovation and the devastating impact of food aid on local farmers hasn’t helped either. "Yes, we feed the hungry but we kill the farmers," Georgieva noted. Or, as food security specialist Amadou Diallo of the government of Niger said: "The basis of peace is food security." When people lack food, they turn to rebellion or terrorism.

Switching from food to cash grants except in those cases where food cannot be provided locally may be the key, argued Degan Ali of Adeso, an advocacy group for development in Africa, at the Rockefeller event. Such "flexible interventions" give the poor the ability to invest in their homes and villages rather than abandon everything and become permanent refugees.

In fact, one of the goals of humanitarian assistance now is preventative: keep people home rather than trekking to refugee camps, argued Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, at the event. Interventions that have been proved to work in that regard are as simple as selling off livestock or providing fodder for lactating goats. These ideas "solve the problem in a far more fundamental manner than rushing in with food aid," Shah argued—a fact that has been born out in academic research for the past several decades.

At the same time, the world will continue to urbanize, as one-time villagers abandon everything and move to the city for a better life. That may improve economic circumstances but it also tends to increase the impact of natural disasters. Floods are more devastating, thanks to migrant villagers building in neglected floodplains or other undesirable areas.

So finding new ways to fund environmental improvement and economic development at the same time will be crucial. And a new project in western Kenya may provide an all too unique example of how the two might be linked.

Life saver?

The LifeStraw is a plastic tube with a hollow-fiber membrane tucked inside. The membrane filters out bacteria, particles, viruses and other nasty stuff from freshwater, making it safe for drinking according to both U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and World Health Organization standards. That is no small thing in the all too many parts of the world where there is no guarantee that drinking water will not induce illness. All told, nearly one billion people worldwide lack access to such safe drinking water—a long-standing humanitarian crisis.

More than 870,000 households in western Kenya now have family-size capacity versions of these straws, part of a program to deliver, maintain and make sure such potentially life-saving technology is used. And this humanitarian program is funded by selling carbon dioxide emission reductions.

What’s the connection between CO2 and humanitarian aid? One word: firewood. In the absence of the LifeStraw, these Kenyan families must boil their water to ensure its safety. To do so, they must gather extra firewood (more than that they would need just for cooking), which spurs both bigger the cutting down of trees as well as times when such critical safety practices have to be skipped due to a lack of resources. Skipping even one day of safe drinking water can mean a health disaster. "It’s not a vaccine. You can’t relax and stop using it," Vestergaard Frandsen says. As it stands, more than 1.5 million children die of diarrheal disease annually around the world, mostly due to bad drinking water.

In order to generate its 2.7 million metric tons worth of verified emission reductions to date, the LifeStraw effort sends field workers out every six months to ensure the technology is both working and being used—and have committed to keep doing so for a decade. Already, according to the company, they are "seeing a statistically significant reduction in the odds of a child under five presenting at a clinic with diarrhea," Vestergaard Frandsen says. Each LifeStraw can filter at least 18,000 liters—enough to supply a family of four for three years with their clean drinking water needs.

The carbon credits fetch between $11.50 and $14 per metric ton, generating at least $30 million for the project. But such a charismatic carbon project is all too rare these days, both because the carbon market is dominated by less robust emission reductions from heavy industry in China and India as well as development efforts that proceed with little thought of the environmental cost or co-benefits. At present, there is simply no way to scale up such innovative efforts because there is no larger market for such "premium" credits as well as no interest from aid agencies. "In development aid, we give upfront dollars and start hoping," Vestergaard Frandsen notes. In order to solve environmental and economic problems, that has to change.

From ScientificAmerican.com (find the original story here); reprinted with permission.

Scientific American is a trademark of Scientific American, Inc., used with permission.

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