By Narasimha D. Rao, IIASA Energy Program

Many people associate raising living standards in developing countries with increases in greenhouse gas emissions. But would improving access to basic needs—such as water supply and nutrition to poor households in Africa—have the same impact on climate change as increasing affluence—people moving to the suburbs, buying bigger homes, and buying cars?

New research that we published this week shows that in fact, it may take fewer emissions to raise the poor’s basic living standards than it does to grow affluence. If this is the case, then progressive development policies may well support climate mitigation. Our new study suggests that climate research needs to focus on how countries’ emissions growth relates to the services people are provide. This could change how we think about development, and influence how we approach the Paris climate negotiations in 2015­ – a milestone many view as the last chance for international cooperation to guide humanity onto a safe path of climate stabilization.

Usripur, India. Photo Credit: Rajashree Khalap

There are many reasons why researchers have stumbled when thinking about poverty eradication and climate change mitigation. First, poverty is itself a debated concept. Much of the development community has moved beyond thinking of poverty just as income. We now include measures of other deprivations for example food, health, and education. But metrics abound, many of which are hard to quantify and aggregate. Second, the climate research community has yet to catch up on this shift when linking growth to human-induced greenhouse gases.  Countries’ growth pathways in climate scenarios are still represented solely in terms of GDP, which doesn’t say much about how that wealth is distributed or access to basic living standards. Third, data on the multiple dimensions of poverty are hard to come by, particularly for poor countries where they are needed most.

In our new study, we used available data on well-recognized poverty indicators – adequate nourishment, water supply and sanitation and electricity access – to relate countries’ growth over time to these indicators and to emissions. We found that while countries’ GDP has grown largely in proportion to emissions, access to these basic needs has grown in the majority of developing countries without proportionate emissions increases. Furthermore, in a handful of countries (such as Costa Rica, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and others) over 90% of the population have access to these basic needs with total emissions of less than five tons of CO2 equivalent per capita, which is well below the world average of 6.3 tons per capita.

A new study shows that raising the poor's basic living standards could lead to fewer greenhouse gas emissions than similar gains in already affluent populations. (Photo Credit: Dave Wilson via Flickr)

Hyderabad, India. Photo Credit: Dave Wilson via Flickr

Much more research is needed before we can assess whether other countries can raise living standards with low carbon emissions growth. Indeed, increased energy access is a primary driver of greenhouse gas growth, and the energy needs of basic human development aren’t well understood, although we have begun to characterize economy-wide energy needs besides providing modern energy to homes. Countries with different fuel endowments and climate may require different energy and emissions to achieve the same progress in human development.

Understanding the climate impacts of poverty alleviation can be useful for international climate policy. One can identify opportunities and challenges for basic human development within the limited carbon space available if we are to keep global average temperature rise within 2-3 degrees C. Second, it can offer a way to differentiate mitigation efforts among developing countries by recognizing and quantifying emissions associated with basic needs. The lack of a successful agreement on other efforts-sharing regimes over the last twenty years gives cause to chart new directions.


Rao, ND, Riahi K, and Grubler A. 2014. Climate impacts of poverty eradication. Nature Climate Change. 4,749–751 doi:10.1038/nclimate2340

Rao, ND, P. Baer. 2012, Decent living emissions: a conceptual framework. Sustainability 4 (4), 656-681. doi:10.3390/su4040656

Rao, ND. 2013. International and intranational equity in burden-sharing agreements for climate change mitigation. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Diplomacy, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 129-146. doi:10.1007/s10784-013-9212-7

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.


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