Select Page

Climate Goals Undermining Global Poverty Reduction


By H. Sterling Burnett, The Heartland Institute

Industry group Energy Transfer has gone on offense in a series of ads highlighting the critical importance of fossil fuels in everyday life. It’s about time the industry stopped playing defense. The ads, however, focus on how fossil fuels have created modern industrial societies. Not everyone has energy abundance. Much of the world suffers from energy poverty, which is largely why those regions suffer from abject penury, hunger, and preventable premature deaths.

Over the decades I’ve been working on climate change issues, I have discussed dozens of times how efforts to fight climate change by prematurely ending the use of fossil fuels harm the poor, in particular stunting much-desired economic development in the poorest nations on Earth, largely in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America. Fossil fuels are critical, for example, to modern 24/7 medical care and emergency services and to modern agriculture.

I’m not the only one who has noticed.

In an insightful and informed analysis, climatologist Judith Curry, Ph.D., author of the recent book Climate Uncertainty and Risk: Rethinking Our Response, shows efforts to limit carbon dioxide emissions and the target of “net zero” are undermining the U.N.’s stated goals of reducing poverty and expediting the economic development that provides the greatest hope for progress for the world’s poorest populations.

Curry begins by pointing to the obvious but often ignored good news: poverty, hunger, and premature mortality are lower than they have ever been, and lifespans are longer, largely because of the advancements made possible by fossil fuels:

100 years ago, the global population was 2 billion. Over the past century, the population has increased to 8 billion, life expectancy has more than doubled, a much smaller percent of the global population is living in poverty, global wealth has increased by a factor of 20, agricultural productivity and yields have increased substantially, and a far smaller fraction of the population die from extreme weather and climate events. …

And all this has occurred during a period where the global temperatures have increased by about 1oC.

Simultaneously, the world’s governments have set the goal of eliminating poverty and hunger and providing affordable energy as part of the United Nations’ “Sustainable Development Goals.” Those goals are at the top of the U.N.’s list, but they are being undermined, Curry points out, by climate goals lower down the list.

Indeed, Western elites’ push for net zero as the prime goal in development is driving decisions at international development banks created to reduce poverty and hampering efforts to alleviate hunger and poverty, Curry notes:

A recent UN Report on Progress Towards Sustainable Development Goals states

“Shockingly, the world is back at hunger levels not seen since 2005, and food prices remain higher in more countries than in the period 2015–2019.”

“At the current rate of progress, renewable energy sources will continue to account for a mere fraction of our energy supplies in 2030, some 660 million people will remain without electricity, and close to 2 billion people will continue to rely on polluting fuels and technologies for cooking.”

Neglecting these sustainability objectives in favor of rapidly reducing CO2 emissions is slowing down or even countering progress on the most important Sustainable Development Goals.

Efforts to rapidly restrict the use of fossil fuels is hampering the #1 goal of poverty reduction in Africa and is restricting Africa’s efforts to develop and utilize its own oil and gas resources (goal #7), as funds previously used for development are being redirected to CO2 mitigation (goal #13).

The #2 goal of no hunger is being hampered by food prices and availability are being worsened by climate mitigation efforts (goal #13), such as disincentives for fossil fuel development causing less supply and higher prices of fuels necessary for agriculture, biofuels (e.g. corn and seed oils), restrictions on livestock, and restrictions on fertilizer.

In the light of this, Curry reasonably asks,

Should one element of Goal 13, related to net-zero emissions, trump the higher priority goals of poverty and hunger and the availability of energy? Not if human well-being, flourishing and thriving are the objectives. Climate policy driven by the perceived urgency of eliminating fossil fuels and without regard to other needs and trade-offs is itself dangerous.

There are no rich, developed, industrialized countries that don’t also generate, produce, and/or use large amounts of energy, primarily fossil fuels. That is an easily verifiable fact.

Yet, at the behest of the U.N. and the Western governments that dominate it, development banks created to reduce poverty and advance economic development are doing just the opposite, in pursuit of net zero. Wealthier societies are less vulnerable to and more resilient in the face of natural disasters, including those caused by climate and weather. As a result, net zero efforts that prevent the use of fossil fuels critical for development are keeping the poorest populations vulnerable to such disasters. People are at more risk of harm than they would be if they used fossil fuels, even if such use is responsible for climate change, Curry writes:

[I]nternational funds for development are being redirected away from reducing poverty and increasing resilience, and towards reducing carbon emissions. By limiting development of electric power, this redirection is exacerbating the harms from weather hazards and climate change for the world’s poor. Development and poverty reduction require abundant and cheap energy, and natural gas is regarded as the best near-term solution for most countries. Working against this need in developing countries, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called on countries to end all new fossil fuel exploration and production. The United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union are aggressively limiting fossil fuel investments; the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other development banks are being pressured to do the same. The African Development Bank is increasingly unable to support large natural gas projects in the face of European shareholder pressure.

Limiting the development of fossil fuel projects is profoundly hampering development in Africa. Africa is starved for energy; sub-Saharan Africa’s one billion people have the power generation capacity that is less than the United Kingdom with 67 million people. …

Every dollar spent on reducing carbon emissions can have a significantly greater impact if directed into education, medical services, food security, and critical infrastructure.

And no, its not just liberty-loving Western climate “deniers” making these points. As Curry notes, African leaders and activists are raising objections to the Western world’s climate obsession undermining global poverty reduction efforts:

Leaders from developing countries have been outspoken in criticizing these changes in international funding practices. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni warns that by pushing climate mitigation on African countries, the West will “forestall Africa’s attempts to rise out of poverty.”

A widely viewed Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Talk by Kenyan energy expert [and activist] Rose Mutiso characterized forcing emissions mitigation on the world’s poor that is widening economic inequality as equivalent to “energy apartheid.”

“Working in global energy and development, I often hear people say, ‘Because of climate, we just can’t afford for everyone to live our lifestyles,’” [Mutiso said]. “That viewpoint is worse than patronizing. It’s a form of racism, and it’s creating a two-tier global energy system, with energy abundance for the rich and tiny solar lamps for Africans.”

It’s time to end Western climate colonialism and allow poor nations to develop as we did, by using fossil fuels. The world can adapt to any adverse climate consequences of such a policy should they occur, as people have done throughout history.


H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is the director of The Heartland Institute’s Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.