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Poverty vs Pollution: Where COP Went Wrong

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

COP26 has hit the world stage like no COP has done before (well it feels that way at least from where I’m sitting here in Bristol). And with this unprecedented stage for sustainability comes many ears and opinions -- including my own. I’m not going to try to dismantle every policy recommendation and commitment discussed at the Conference, I’m not that dumb. Instead, I’m going to write about the only commitment that the UK Government feels is important enough to highlight in their four goals webpage: to mobilise at least $100bn in climate finance per year, and how it made me think of Two Million Villages.

As the title suggests, this entry will cover the interplay between poverty and pollution, but don't worry, there won’t only be my thoughts in these lines. I’m going to bring Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s far wiser words into the debate.

Ernst has a chapter (Chapter 3 for those interested) in his seminal ‘Small is Beautiful’, written in the 70’s, that looks at poverty and aid. In this chapter he writes about how “world poverty is primarily a problem of two million villages, and thus a problem of two thousand million villagers”. In saying this he presents the dichotomy between those in poverty (the recipient of aid) and those in affluence (the giver of aid).

In the case of pollution (the focal point of COP), it can be said that world pollution is the problem of two thousand cities, and thus a problem of two thousand million city-dwellers.

For the sake of clarity I will explain what I mean by villagers and city-dwellers. A villager is poor, likely from Sub-Saharan Africa or undeveloped Asia, and contributes around 0.1 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year (source). A city-dweller is wealthy, likely from a G7 country, and contributes 5.1 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year (source). The terms villager and city-dweller are used here to distinguish between rich and poor, Range Rover driver and rickshaw driver, 7th floor apartment with spouse-dweller and handbuilt hut with four generations-dweller; basically the top 2 billion and bottom 2 billion in terms of wealth.

If we take a closer look at the emissions produced by villagers versus the city-dwellers we see that one ‘owns-15-pairs-of-Nike-trainers-because-it’s-their-hobby’ city dweller counts for the same amount of pollution as 51 of their villager counterparts.

Back to COP and I’ll keep it snappy -- we’ve all heard too many ‘commitments’ for this year already. The $100bn of climate finance is going to those who live lives that are not a significant problem for our planet: the two billion villagers. The villagers are climate superheroes, not Elon Musk and definitely not Bill Gates (new book about solving climate change(?) out now) -- two geniuses in their own right, but also two people who have no grip on what “living within nature and not opposed to it” is.

Why on earth is our primary goal to give billions to those who aren't causing the problem at hand?

I'll tell you why, and it's something I like to call guilt colonialism, you might like to call it political deflection, but ultimately it all boils down to the city-dwellers not wanting to give up their immense carbon-fuelled privilege and drawing upon some pretty ghastly tactics to ensure we give up absolutely nothing.

Deep breath, Oscar. You promised not to rant. You promised not to rant. You promised not to rant. (I’m also aware of my position at the top end of the city-dwellers, but I’m not writing about myself here. I’m writing about the world system).

Guilt colonialism then. Guilt because we’re starting to feel bad about this whole situation us city-dwellers have landed everyone in. And colonialism because the systems of inequality in pollution and wealth are still quite perfectly mapped to colonial relationships (unless the colonialists are still inhabiting the country that is). Further reading here.

Green is the New Black

So the $100bn (and I must mention here that this commitment has been around for a decade with only $9bn ever actually being mobilised, so this is a re-commitment or ‘sorry-we-lied-last time-but-this-time-it's-really-true’-commitment this time round) is public and private money, to be distributed by city-dweller businesses, the World Bank and inter-governmental organisations (source).

So this is essentially money flowing from wealthy city-dwellers to poor villagers.

This is there E. F. Schumacher can share his two cents on the matter.

“We may consider the case of a small group of developing countries which receive supplementary income on a truly magnificent scale -- the oil producing countries of the Middle East, Libya, and Venezuela. Their tax and royalty income from the oil companies in 1968 reached £2,349 million, or roughly £50 per head of their populations. Is this input of funds producing healthy and stable societies, contented populations, the progressive elimination of rural poverty, a flourishing agriculture, and widespread industrialisation? In spite of some very limited successes, the answer is certainly no. Money alone does not do the trick.”

Like the mobilisation of the Black (anti-)Climate Fund (oil-motivated foreign direct investment), the Green Climate Fund will be measured in one overarching metric -- which happens to be green as well: return on investment or increases in a villager-country’s Gross Domestic Product. When there is a profit motive for development funding, there is inherent exploitation and neocolonialist ties, especially when Bretton Woods institutions like the World Bank are in the mix (source).

With the Green Climate Fund however, there’s another metric at play: carbon emission reductions. At a global level, we can look at this as offsetting at magnificent scale -- like that Range Rover-driving, 10 city breaks a year city-dweller who pays £4 a month to plant trees in Madagascar to make that all okay.

Yes, the Green Climate Fund will perform well in the predefined quantitative metrics of money and carbon (similar to oil now in that it is a traded commodity), but the qualitative metrics will undoubtedly fall short - as has been the issue with aid for decades, Ernst postulates. The qualitative metrics mentioned here are the reductions in poverty at the human level: primarily changing the type of labour that occurs amongst the two billion villagers.

In the rich cities of the world, we know how to do things with a lot of capital. The difference when pumping money into the villages, is that capital doesn’t do the trick where there is tons of labour but capital is scarce.

Take for example a company that funds the planting of trees in countries where the vast majority of the population are villagers -- and excuses the Range Rover-driver for his climate ills for £4 a month. This company has very impressive metrics in carbon removal and turnover, but whose business model is reliant on systemic inequalities that mean £4 (or 0.1% of monthly earnings) is what it takes to live an anti-planet lifestyle. This does very little -- if not nothing at all -- to solve issues of poverty amongst the villagers. It’s not lifting people out of poverty, it’s keeping them there.

Back to Ernst:

“It remains an unalterable truth that, just as a sound mind depends on a sound body, so the health of the city[-dwellers] depends on the health of the rural areas [and their villager inhabitants]. The cities, with all their wealth, are merely secondary producers, while primary production, the precondition of all economic life, takes place in the countryside. The prevailing lack of balance, based on the age-old exploitation of countryman and raw material producer, today threatens all countries throughout the world, the rich even more than the poor. To restore a proper balance between city and rural life is perhaps the greatest task in front of modern man.”

The problem started and must live here in the cities, amongst the perpetrators. We must bear the brunt of climate suffering - through giving up our Nike collection and our Range Rovers. At the very least -- and this is my "Where COP Went Wrong" -- not capitalise on climate catastrophe: something that looks more than likely through the ‘greatest achievement’ of COP26.