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Don't place climate over poverty

By BJORN LOMBORG | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-03 12:07


Too many rich-world politicians and climate campaigners forget that much of the world remains mired in poverty and hunger. Yet rich countries are increasingly replacing their development aid with climate spending. The World Bank, whose primary goal is to help people out of poverty, has now announced it will divert no less than 45 percent of its funding toward climate change, shifting some $40 billion annually away from poverty and hunger.

It's easy to treat climate as the world's priority when your life is comfortable. The 16 percent of the global population that lives in those countries doesn't typically go hungry or watch their loved ones die of easily treatable diseases like malaria or tuberculosis. Most of the people in those countries are well-educated, and their average incomes are in the league of what was once reserved for royalty.

Much of the rest of the world, however, still struggles. Across poorer countries, 5 million children die every year before their fifth birthday, and almost 1 billion people don't get enough food to eat. More than 2 billion people have to cook and keep warm with polluting fuels such as dung and wood, shortening their lifespan. Although most young children now attend school, low education quality means most children in low- and lower-middle-income countries will remain functionally illiterate.

Poor countries desperately need more access to inexpensive and plentiful energy that previously allowed rich countries to develop. The lack of access to energy hampers industrialization, growth and opportunity. Case in point: In Africa, electricity is so scarce that the total electricity available per person is much less than what a single refrigerator in the rich world uses.

Raiding development funding to spend it on climate action is an abysmal decision. Climate change is real, but the data do not support using scarce development resources to tackle it before addressing poverty-related ills.

Climate activists argue that poverty and climate change are inextricably linked and we should take simultaneous measures to alleviate poverty and combat climate change. But we actually don't. Studies have repeatedly shown that spending on core development priorities helps much more and much faster per dollar spent than spending on climate action.

That is because real development investments — whether to fight malaria, boost the health of women and girls, promote e-learning, or raise agricultural productivity — can dramatically change people's lives for the better right now and make poorer countries better off in many ways, including making them more resilient against natural disasters and any additional, climate-related disasters.

In contrast, even drastically reducing carbon emissions would not deliver noticeably different outcomes for a generation or more. While spending on adaptation to build resilience in poor countries is a slightly more effective use than cutting emissions, both are far inferior to investing in the best development policies.

Climate change is not the end of the world. Indeed, United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's scenarios show the world will dramatically improve over the century and that, despite panicked campaigning, climate change will merely slightly slow that progress. Last year, the world saw its largest cereal production ever. With incomes and yields continuing to grow, hunger will fall dramatically over the coming decades. Climate change is forecast to merely make that hunger decline a smidgen slower.

Likewise, the IPCC expects global average income to increase three-and-a-half-fold by 2100, without climate change. Even if we do little against climate change, the work of William Nordhaus, the only climate economist to win the Nobel Prize for Economics, shows that it would slow the progress only slightly, because by 2100 incomes would still rise by 3.34 times.

We should tackle climate change smartly, with rich countries making sorely needed, long-term investments in green energy R&D to devise low-cost solutions that deliver reliable energy at prices everyone can afford. Much of the poorer world primarily wants to pull people out of poverty and improve their quality of life by providing them with cheap and reliable energy. Yet rich countries now refuse to fund anything even remotely related to fossil fuels.

This smacks of hypocrisy, because rich countries themselves get almost four-fifths of their energy from fossil fuels, largely because of the unreliability and storage problems of solar and wind energy. Yet they arrogantly castigate poor countries for aspiring to increase energy generation capacity and suggest that the poor countries somehow "skip ahead" to intermittent solar and wind, with an unreliability that the rich world does not accept for its own needs.

For people in most poor countries, climate change ranks far down the priority list. A large survey of political and social leaders in low- and middle-income countries similarly revealed education, employment, peace and health are their top development priorities, with climate change being 12th in a list of 16.

The poorer half of the world certainly deserves more opportunities to improve their lives. But as politicians are asking for more money, ostensibly to help the world's poorest, we should demand it goes into efficient development projects that actually save and transform lives, not to feel-good, inefficient climate programs.

The author is president of the Copenhagen Consensus. His new book is Best Things First, which The Economist named one of the best books of 2023. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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