Environmental poverty already affects millions of people in the world

During COP26, it is sought that the leaders of each country make the necessary commitments to reduce emissions, mobilize funds and promote adaptation and resilience, especially to protect the environment and human populations.

According to reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “an increase of 2 ° C would have a great impact on security, food and human health.” However, this is a situation that we are already experiencing and that is pushing many people to experience environmental poverty, a key concept to understand the consequences of climate change.

Indicators to measure the level of poverty

Historically, poverty measurement has had a primarily monetary focus. It has been calculated using the average income required per inhabitant to cover basic needs. The World Bank at the global level and each country at the national level define it in different amounts. According to this perspective, economic growth has proven to be one of the main ways to reduce poverty.

In recent decades, through other measurements such as the Human Development Index (HDI) and the Multidimensional Poverty Index, other variables have been included to estimate health, education or standard of living, relating poverty to poverty. freedom and the ability to achieve well-being.

But in these measurements the environmental impact was missing. Poverty is not explained simply by the responsibility of the individual, but by the context that surrounds that person. Numerous studies show that global warming has increased economic inequality. It has favored colder countries like Norway and Sweden and dragged down economic growth in hot countries like India and Nigeria.

For this reason, new methodologies such as the HDI adjusted for planetary pressures (IDHP) have been developed for the Human Development Index. This takes into account the pressure that each country exerts on the planet in two areas:

  • Carbon dioxide emissions.

  • The material footprint, understanding it as the extraction of natural resources to satisfy the domestic demand for products and services of a country. Not surprisingly, it was possible to observe how the countries with the greatest human development were also the countries with the greatest material footprint per capita and, therefore, the greatest environmental impact.

Countries with the highest Human Development Index tend to put more pressure on the planet on a large scale.
Human Development Report 2020 / UNDP

Poverty and climate change

In this context, we must understand that poverty and climate change have a two-way relationship. Environmental poverty can be understood as the “lack of a healthy environment necessary for the survival and development of society”.

The factors that aggravate environmental poverty can be divided mainly into two categories: the increasingly recurring disasters produced by climate variability and the pollution and depletion of natural resources.

Climate variability alters the normal functioning of society, generating emergency situations that have devastating effects in the short and long term. In 2016, a report by the World Bank and the Global Fund for Disaster Reduction and Recovery revealed that 26 million people are pushed directly into poverty each year due to disasters produced by these climatic changes. The UN estimates direct economic losses from disasters from 1998 to 2017 at nearly $ 3 trillion, with climate-related disasters accounting for 77% of the total.

People in poverty are more vulnerable and more exposed to climatic disasters. This is partly due to the fact that they have a lower capacity to choose where to locate their home and this is usually of lower quality and less resistant.

Additionally, the increase in food prices as a consequence of climate variability disproportionately affects populations with fewer resources.

Forced migration is another of the main climatic factors that push people into poverty. According to another of the IPCC reports, approximately 10% of the world’s population lives in low-lying coastal areas (just 10 meters above sea level) whose habitability is in constant threat due to rising sea levels. For example, El Salvador is expected to lose between 10% and 28% of its coastline before the end of the century.

Another study estimated that more than 1 million people living in three megadeltas – the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta in Bangladesh, the Mekong delta in Vietnam and the Nile delta in Egypt – will be directly affected by coastal erosion and loss. of land by 2050.

On the other hand, the decline and depletion of natural resources due to deforestation, soil erosion, overfishing or air pollution reduce the resources essential for human life, especially affecting the most vulnerable people.

Consequences of pollution

Pollution is the cause of frequent illnesses and, in some cases, can lead to disability and inability to work. At the global level, a report published in 2017 by the Commission on The Lancet on pollution and health estimated that pollution was the cause of 9 million (16%) premature deaths in 2015, fifteen times more than deaths caused by conflict and three times more than malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis combined.

According to another Berkeley Earth study, air pollution in China is responsible for 1.6 million deaths a year, about 17% of all deaths in the country.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) warns that the depletion and scarcity of natural resources in agricultural societies and in coastal areas dependent on marine resources further hinders access to these resources for people who they cannot diversify their economy. In Cambodia, for example, overfishing has depleted the fish stocks in Lake Tonlé Sap on which millions of people depend.

Policies developed to address environmental poverty should not only reduce the negative impact of our consumption (especially the richest 10% on the planet) but also find ways to increase sustainable economic opportunities for those living in poverty and address a just transition that protects communities affected by ecological transformation.

As Borja Monreal says, “the worst thing about poverty is its silence.” For this reason, during these days, more than ever, we must make visible that millions of people are already experiencing environmental poverty and understand that its origins and consequences are everyone’s responsibility.


This article was originally published in English on IE Insights, IE University’s knowledge hub.


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This article is part of The Conversation’s coverage of COP26, the Glasgow climate conference.

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