Reframing climate change: how carbon reduction can also reduce poverty and inequality

January 27, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Given the events of 2016 we may well need to find additional ways of arguing for action on climate change.  Luckily, new evidence highlights additional incentives for action.  Ruth Mayne explores the ‘co-benefits’ of tackling climate change and the practical benefits they can bring to community and national development.

We normally understand climate change as a collective action problem. The climate is a global public good which everyone benefits from. Therefore if one government/organisation/individual takes action everyone else benefits. But this can create an incentive for others to free ride on the efforts of others without having to incur any of the costs.  Fortunately, mounting evidence about the economic, health, social and environment co-benefits of reducing carbon emissions challenges this understanding and may be one of the factors driving increased action by communities, municipalities, businesses and governments around the world.

Co-benefits A co-benefit is any additional benefit, other than carbon savings, derived from carbon reduction policies and programmes whether renewable energy generation , home energy, transport, food, agricultural, forestation  etc.

Evidence about co-benefits is growing year on year. Stern was among the first to argue that the economic benefits of strong and early action (in terms of avoided damage from climate change) would outweigh the costs of action, and that delaying action would become much more expensive. climatechange_cartoonRecent studies by the International Energy Agency show multiple social, economic and health co-benefits from improved energy efficiency across a range of sectors and that fuel cost savings more than offset the additional investment costs of achieving a global warming below two degrees. The fifth IPCC report concludes that the benefits outweigh costs for demand-reduction measures in transport, buildings and industry.   A recent study in the UK has shown that at national level the environmental and health co-benefits of the national carbon reduction activities recommended by the Committee on Climate Change would significantly outweigh the negative impacts. A review for DFID  shows a range of co-benefits from low carbon electrification in southern countries and so on.


The implications are significant: where the value of co-benefits from carbon reduction outweighs the costs then it makes sense for governments and others to reduce carbon emissions irrespective of whether others do so or not. At international level the economic co-benefits mean that countries and business can gain early-mover advantage in international markets. As one business academic has pointed out ‘With many nations beginning to move on climate change, those that move first, second, third and so on are likely to reap the biggest gains. The global low carbon economy will be dominated by technical standard-setting processes that will cause profound restructuring of national economies. As most companies know it is better to be leader than a laggard in standard-setting processes’.  

Within countries it means governments can leapfrog dirty polluting fossil fuel industries and reap a investment in renewablesrange of co-benefits from reducing carbon emissions; national and local businesses can benefit from lucrative new job-creating markets; and local government and communities can use low carbon policies and finance incentives to simultaneously help tackle a range of other local economic, social and health strategic objectives. There will be losers in some sectors from the transition to a low carbon future which needs to be taken seriously and addressed.  Strong social security systems and training can help workers through the transition and weaken threats by incumbent firms about job loss.

Distributional implications

Interestingly, the distributional implications of co-benefits have been less discussed. Conventionally, national and international carbon reduction policies and programmes have tended to focus on getting the biggest emitters -whether rich countries or large institutions – to reduce and report on their carbon emissions. A strong case can also be made to get high emitting rich individuals to reduce their emissions. From a narrow carbon reduction perspective such an approach makes sense. Ethically, these actors make the biggest contribution to climate change and therefore should also bear the biggest burden in reducing emissions (as reflected in the principle of common but differentiated responsibility). Practically, they also have greater resources/capacity to take action.

But co-benefits also offer an opportunity to use carbon reduction policies and programmes to simultaneously help reduce poverty and inequality. They mean that as well as seeking to reduce the emissions of high emitting countries/organisations/individuals, carbon reduction policies and programmes also need to be designed so that they share co-benefits with lower emitting poorer countries/smaller organisations/low income individuals. Indeed failure to do so will mean that the co-benefits accrue to the better resourced, further exacerbating existing inequalities.

Internationally it is widely accepted in principle, if not always in practice, that the costs of carbon mitigation for poor countries should be subsidised e.g. through the transfer of low carbon technologies.  Within the UK, it is widely accepted that low income households, even where they are low emitters, should receive subsidies and practical assistance to improve the energy efficiency of their homes because of the huge health benefits that warm, dry homes confer.

Not as contradictory as we thought?

Not as contradictory as we thought?

The evidence of co-benefits linked to low carbon transport, food, clean energy and tree planting programmes suggests that the same inclusive design principles should be applied to these sectors too.   This would imply targeting investment in low-cost low carbon public transport modes used by poor people; tackling barriers that prevent low income people from accessing low carbon, healthy, low meat/high plant diets; establishing community benefit renewable energy cooperatives in low income communities etc.  More widely, it means targeting investment to economic sectors that can simultaneously reduce carbon emissions and create jobs/incomes for low income groups such as energy efficient homes.

Communicating climate change

Co-benefits also have implications for how we communicate about climate change. Efforts to motivate action on climate change have tended to focus on communicating the environmental and human impacts of climate change or our ethical responsibility to act for sake of the planet and future generations.  These messages remain important. But highlighting how action on climate change can also contribute to fairer, healthier and more prosperous communities, and a more human economy, may well help convince those who are sceptical about purely ‘altruistic’ or ‘hair-shirt’ arguments.