Researchers explore how to protect the environment while helping those living in poverty

Planet Earth

Social and environmental goals can sometimes be at odds. For example, lifting people out of poverty can lead to them consuming more resources and emitting more carbon.

In a new study published in the journal Nature Sustainability, an international team of scientists investigates the environmental impacts of eliminating poverty.

The study authors, including two from the University of Arizona, conclude that drastic societal change is key to ensuring people's universal access to basic needs without further environmental degradation. Necessary transformations include less consumption by the wealthiest people and greater overall sustainability of water, food, infrastructure and energy. 

Diana Liverman

Diana Liverman

"Hundreds of millions of people in the world are living in extreme poverty and don't have enough money, land or access to resources to live a dignified life, let alone escape from poverty," said Diana Liverman, a UArizona Regents Professor Emerita in the School of Geography, Development and Environment, who co-authored the paper with postdoctoral research associate Lauren Gifford and researchers from other institutions. "The big challenge is eradicating poverty in ways that are sustainable and don't increase impacts on the environment. Conversely, some environmental protection measures can have negative impacts on the poor."

For example, she said, setting aside large, protected areas of forests can undermine poor and Indigenous peoples who depend on such land for resources and survival.

The study estimates what the additional pressures on the Earth system would have been in 2018 if social justice measures had allowed for the poorest third of humanity to have minimum access to food, water, energy and infrastructure.

The analysis shows that if the poorest achieved adequate resource access, greenhouse gas emissions could increase by 15 to 26%. There could also be a 2 to 5% increase in water and land use, as well as pollution from fertilizers such as phosphorous.

However, these increased pressures are modest compared to the Earth system impacts of consumption by the wealthiest 5% of the global population, the study finds. Therefore, the researchers argue, in order to achieve both societal and environmental goals, high per capita consumers – who use the bulk of Earth's resources and ecosystems – are the ones who should make changes.

"Our research is important because many people assume that meeting the needs of the poorest is possible without major redistributions and transformations in society. We show that in 2018 – so with 2018 levels of inequalities, technologies and behaviors – providing dignified lives for the poor would have led to further crossing of Earth system boundaries, especially for climate," said lead study author Crelis Rammelt, assistant professor of environmental geography and development studies at the University of Amsterdam. "However, it is important to frame these potential impacts in the context of wider inequalities in resource use and environmental impacts today. It is the wealthy who appropriate the bulk of the Earth's resources, not the poor."

One of the main ways to accomplish both social and environmental goals would be to "reallocate consumption," Liverman said.

"You can do that in many ways," she said. "For example, you can implement a tax on high consumption or promote sustainable technologies. We can change how and where we invest and stop focusing on profit above everything else. Policy makers, businesses and individuals can all work to reduce pressures on the planet while addressing justice by considering the needs of the poor. In fact, that is the basis of the internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goals."

The emphasis should be on promoting systematic transformations that will enhance opportunities for those living in poverty "rather than asking poor countries of the world to tighten their belts or make do without," said co-author Chukwumerije Okereke, a professor at Alex Ekwueme Federal University in Nigeria.

The study focuses on ensuring minimum access to resources and services for the most disadvantaged populations.

"However, our paper shows that with contemporary technology and approaches to production, minimum access cannot be met without reallocating resources, risks and responsibilities; without redistribution and transformation," said co-lead author Joyeeta Gupta, professor of environment and development in the global south at the University of Amsterdam. "In upcoming work, we look at other aspects of justice, such as minimizing harm to humans and addressing the root causes of environmental degradation and vulnerability."

Gupta is co-chair of the Earth Commission, convened by Future Earth – an international research program seeking solutions to sustainable development. Future Earth was established at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012. The other study authors also belong to the Earth Commission, and Liverman co-leads a commission working group that focuses on justice and transformation research.

The study comes ahead of an Earth Commission report due out in early 2023 that will outline a range of parameters to safeguard a stable and resilient planet and help determine the target goals for businesses, cities and governments. The Earth Commission provides scientific guidance to the Global Commons Alliance – a network of cities, businesses and countries seeking science-based action to protect the environment.

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