Decarbonisation and Poverty

By Chris Armstrong, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Southampton.


The spectre of dangerous climate change throws up many challenges. This post concentrates on just one of them – albeit one which has received too little attention. We know that if dangerous climate change is to be avoided, the majority of the world’s fossil fuel supplies cannot be burned. If we are committed to avoiding temperature rises in excess of 2ºC, for example, an estimated two thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves must go unused by 2050. To these reserves must be added all anticipated supplies which are not yet commercially available.

If there is widespread agreement that our dependence on the world’s most valuable commodity must be radically curtailed, this simple fact throws up a series of important questions. Politically, the most pressing question is how to ensure that the world adheres to the available ‘carbon budget’ by leaving most supplies unexploited. The earliest attempts to curtail fossil fuel use aimed to depress demand, for instance by way of carbon taxes, or compulsory cap-and-trade mechanisms. Increasingly, though, attention has shifted to measures which would restrict the supply of coal, gas and oil. In principle – since there are far fewer extractors of fossil fuels than there are consumers, and since extraction is immobile – supply ought to be easier to monitor and control than demand.

But an important moral question is how to manage any losses generated by the ‘decarbonisation’ of the global economy. Leaving the oil – and the gas, and the coal – in the soil will have major consequences for a number of actors. Unless they manage to diversify first, fossil fuel companies may have billions of dollars wiped off their stock market valuations. Thousands of people employed in the oil, gas and coal industries could lose their jobs. Indeed a whole series of people in peripheral industries – right down to people running cafes and general stores in mining towns – might do so too. Shareholders, and ordinary pension holders, might be exposed to significant losses, given that many investment funds maintain large holdings in fossil fuel industries.

Finally – and of particular interest from the point of view of debates on global justice – fossil-fuel exporting countries stand to lose out on a significant source of revenue. On one estimate, the overall revenues foregone when these assets are ‘stranded’ could total tens of trillions of dollars globally.  Moreover, some of the greatest losses are likely to occur in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and Latin America, since developing country exporters are particularly likely to have untapped – or even unexplored – supplies.  For instance, it has been calculated that 73% of the coal found in Central and South America, and 90% of African supplies, must go unexploited if we are to meet a 2ºC target. The countries of the Middle East and Africa, meanwhile, may have to leave their entire unconventional gas reserves underground.

The economic consequences could be dramatic. Consider a simple comparison. According to the OECD, annual oil revenues flowing to Nigeria alone are more than triple the Overseas Development Assistance flowing to the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. To be sure, fossil fuel wealth has often turned out to do disappointingly little for the ordinary citizens of developing countries, and in some cases it has locked countries into cycles of bad governance and civil strife. Nevertheless, it has also spurred periods of remarkable economic growth. For the taps to turn off now could generate an economic shock that poor countries are ill-equipped to weather.

The world has rightly focused on how the transition beyond carbon can be brought about. But we also need to make sure it is a just transition. It cannot be a transition which leaves some mired in poverty. As a result, we need to give serious attention to side-policies which would offset morally troubling losses of development opportunities. As well as being morally pressing, doing so will be politically important too. The chances of stabilising our climate are all the slimmer if parties to any agreement feel that their legitimate grievances are not being addressed. It is likely that ‘Only a global climate deal that compensates losers and is perceived as equitable by all participants can impose strict limits on the use of fossil fuels in the long term.’

The vitally important question to which we are only now shifting our attention is: what policies should accompany decarbonisation, so as to make the transition away from carbon a fair one? Assuming that these policies will have a cost, who should pick up the tab, and on what basis? These are important questions for both theorists and policy-makers. I was recently lucky enough to be involved in an excellent conference on just such questions, on the island of Lofoten in Norway – a country which famously relies on oil and gas sales for much of its wealth, but is now thinking seriously about the post-carbon future. It is to be hoped that this conference is a sign that the question about decarbonisation and poverty will be taken up much more widely.

Health for All on Human Rights Day: A Pro-Poor Approach

By Pia Riggirozzi and Erica Penfold. Pia Riggirozzi is Senior Lecturer in Global Politics at University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu) and Erica Penfold is Research Officer at the South African Institute of International Affairs. Both are partners at the ESRC-DFID funded project ‘Poverty Reduction and Regional Integration: SADC and Unasur Health Policies’ (@PRARIRepir). You can find more posts by Pia here.


In recent years there has been growing global awareness of the interplay between rights and the development process and a generalised recognition of social determinants of health connecting poverty, equality and health. Yet, for millions of people throughout the world, the full enjoyment of the right to health still remains a distant goal. Poverty remains one of the driving forces behind ill health, a lack of access to healthcare and medicines and consistent underdevelopment. The World Bank shows that 700 million fewer people live in conditions of extreme poverty in 2010 than in 1990 across developing regions. However, the Global South is still struggling, everyday thousands of children, women and men die silently from preventable diseases associated with poverty.

The United Nations acknowledges these issues as it continues to produce a stream of further guidance in the form of General Comments, such as the General Comment 14, while sponsoring global Declarations and Commissions on Social Determinants of Health. Human Rights Day observed by the international community on 10th December since 1950 acts as a reminder of the importance of recognition and advancement of rights and the human right to health. But the current high-level focus on health by the international community while recognising the strong relationship between poverty and health, in practice, has been quite conservative in turning the rhetoric into practice. Translating normative principles into politics of compliance and practices for policy implementation remains uneven across the wide spectrum of human rights issues, acknowledging and affecting bearers of rights in different ways. For William Easterly this is clear, ‘which rights to health are realised is a political battle’ contingent on a political and economic reality that profits on the margins of (poor) health. He is right, we can’t downplay politics. Think of a funder – whether the Gates Foundation, Welcome Trust, private charity or government programme – their agenda may well spend a great deal of resources (financial and human) on dealing with one disease. Or programmes advanced by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Global Fund, or the Gates Foundation; despite having the best intentions, they may be guided by their own views, agendas and objectives. Undoubtedly, diseases like HIV, malaria and tuberculosis account for over 90 per cent of the global disease burden, yet the millions of dollars poured into programmes to tackle these diseases have done little to tackle weak healthcare systems which are in many cases unreachable or distrusted by the people they are designed to help. Equally critical, other peoples’ rights could be neglacted if diseases like dengue, leishmaniasis, Chagas and Chikungunya that also add to the increasing toll of human life and to the poverty-disease burden receive little attention. The risk is that what is visible and urgent leads over what is marginal and that actions targeted to the poor, yet ignoring the social factors that cause poverty and exclusion, discriminate positively, normalising and even reproducing inequities. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is another reminder of these risks.

The realisation of people’s rights, entitlements, and obligations, is largely determined by the nature of the state and its capacity to respond to internal public demands, interests, and pressures. Philanthropists in rich countries and the global aid community more generally can mainstream and support national strategies. But we believe there is a role to pay by the neglected partners in development: regional organisations. Regional organisations can be key engines in the development of progressive social policies and advocacy of rights. For example, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has established a regional court of justice adjudicating on national labour rights, while the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) is now driving initiatives to expand entitlements to health care and social security within member states and it is shaping policies around disability all over the world, negotiating with one voice at the World Health Organisation. This makes sense because some social harms and epidemics are inherently cross-border, and are exacerbated or facilitated by regional developments.

Regional organisations that were built for other reasons are now becoming much more important for health and will be particularly important if we look at the Post-2015 Agenda. Organisations such as UNASUR and ECOWAS can provide donors and partners with a single point of contact for discussions and implementation of poverty reduction programmes in member countries. They are close to their populations and can develop technical cooperation, building infrastructure and strengthening capacity between the member states, rescaling practices to reduce socio-economic disparities.

Renewed focus on health, as a basic human right, is a poverty issue. It demands thinking about the deep determinants of (under)development and social exclusion and national, regional and global commitments to enhance access to health care, to medicines, to opportunities. Neglecting this will be a tragedy of aid assistance and possibly of the Sustainable Development Goals.