The following quote describes how the World Bank thinks about poverty and climate change today: “Eradicating extreme poverty and ending global warming can only be addressed together: Reducing poverty without taking CO2 emissions into account is a self-defeating strategy because The consequences of climate change threaten hard-won development progress.”
The quote precedes a World Bank blog post that summarizes academic work by three of the institution's economists. This way of thinking is also reflected in the credit and support policy of the development aid institution. From next year onwards, it wants to dedicate 45 percent of its spending to climate projects.
The statement could be understood as if the poorest countries had to supplement their policies to combat the most pressing poverty with climate policy measures in order to prevent worse disasters. The well-known development economist Lant Pritchett shows in a blog post that this would be the wrong approach. He gives the example of Malawi. The country is one of the poorest ever. Around 70 percent of the population lives in poverty with an income of less than $2.15 a day. At the same time, the contribution of the country, where most people live from subsistence agriculture, to the greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere is negligible. Even under optimistic growth scenarios for the poor country, emissions until 2050 will remain smaller than they could change the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.
A drop in the ocean
It's not just about the fact that Malawi, as a small and poor country, only emits 24 million tons of CO2 annually, which is around 0.4 percent of what the USA emits and 0.2 percent of what China emits. It is also simply the case that the amount already accumulated is so large that Malawi's emissions remain irrelevant.
This means that even if Malawi were to pursue an exemplary policy of reducing emissions that has charmed the climate activists of international organizations, this would have no impact on the consequences of climate change for its own country. There is a difference here to classic sustainable environmental policy, as Pritchett explains. Tolerating water pollution, for example, could endanger fishing and therefore prosperity. Environmental policy of this kind would have a direct local impact, in contrast to climate policy. The threats of global warming affect Malawi because of the actions of other countries in the present, future and past - and therefore regardless of the country's emissions, which is only an example of small, poor developing countries.
The problem with climate protection is that it is a global public good that requires cooperation from all countries, while at the same time it is clear to everyone that the contribution of a single country has little impact. Against this background, the logic of political rhetoric that requires every country to reduce its emissions becomes clear. For example, it is argued that countries that forego emissions reductions give other countries with a greater weight in the global climate balance an excuse not to do anything themselves.