Poverty in the world and sustainability are not on par. Sustainability plans are usually designed to manage the long-term environmental impacts of human activities. What we tend to forget is that these plans can have devastating effects on world poverty.
Economic growth, financial stability, and jobs are often believed to be essential to sustainability plans. These plans are usually aligned with the protection of ecosystems, biodiversity, and water resources on which the poorest of the world depend.
Climate change, energy insecurity, freshwater scarcity, deteriorating ecosystems, and biodiversity, already have a detrimental impact on the poorest of the world. Sustainability plans primarily and predominantly protect those who are well off.
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Whose planet and whose profit?
Of course, sustainability plans are not designed to frustrate their own outcomes. The ambitions on which these plans are designed are supposed to balance people, planet, and profit. The question is however whose planet and whose profit.
On a global scale sustainability plans are far too ambitious. As a result, most of the sustainability plans are country-based, if not regional. In practice, most of the countries designing these plans are developed countries. They have the money and the administrative capacity to design and implement them.
Every sustainability plan starts with a description of the current state of the balance between people, planet, and profit. This description is the starting point for an endless debate about the ambitions, which are aimed at sustaining or changing this balance. However, these plans never aim at relieving poverty in the world.
Sustainability plans, which do not incorporate the relief of poverty in the world, have a devastating impact on the poor. This can best be illustrated with some practical examples. The first example takes the oil price on the world market as a reference. Water scarcity is the second example. And the control of carbon dioxide emissions, one of the causes of global warming, is the third example.
Energy and poverty
The core of every sustainability policy plan is supposed to be the energy balance. A ship with oranges from Florida, USA, to Rotterdam in The Netherlands, EU, is far more sustainable than trucks moving the same amount of oranges from Valencia in Spain, EU, to Rotterdam.
Oil prices have a huge impact on the energy balance. The USA and the EU usually are very well capable of handling fluctuating oil prices. These are the rich regions. Nevertheless, fluctuating oil prices can have a severe impact on the global economy.
But the impact is always heaviest on the poor. In 2008, the oil price rose to 180 dollars a barrel. As a result between an extra 130 and 150 million people were driven into poverty worldwide. Moreover, 2.4 billion people must be designated as ‘energy poor’. They rely on wood, or another type of biomass such as manure, for cooking and heating, and 1.6 billion of them have no access to electricity.
Water and poverty
The infinite loss of ecosystems is specifically hard on the poorest of the world. Almost 20% of the world’s population depends on the most fragile ecosystems. Forests, such as the Amazon rainforest, swamps, mountainous areas, and deserts are more and more depleted of water resources.
Some 600 million poor people are directly affected because they live in rural areas. Another 600 million poor people live in urban areas without any access to clean water services. They are not able to pay for those services. Moreover, almost 3 billion people have no access to basic sanitation services.
Carbon dioxide emissions and poverty
In countries such as China and the United States, and the European Union sustainability plans are designed with substantial and ambitious time frames. These are all aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions to help counter climate change.
These countries are all high-income and large economies. For these types of economies the improvement of the efficiency of energy systems, the conservation of fossil fuels, and the development of alternative energy sources boost the profits of companies. These improvements also create financial stability and jobs.
There are several problems with these sustainability plans though because they increase poverty in the world:
- These plans include the removal of subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels, fueling the rise of fossil fuel prices, primarily affecting the poor;
- They also require enormous investments, which create unfair competition because developing countries will never be able to make them;
- And these plans create so-called poverty spills, meaning that all old and not so energy-efficient systems will be sold to poor countries, increasing their dependence on fossil fuels.
Poverty in the world ignored
The core of sustainability plans consists of various types of improvement. Some of them are already mentioned, such as more efficient energy and water management, and a decrease in carbon dioxide emissions. Sometimes, the plans also aim at alleviating the problems of the poor ‘at the same time’.
These four words, ‘at the same time’, are the most shameful expression of the self-centered ideas that dominate sustainability ideas in rich countries. These words deny the irrefutable link between ecosystems and the living conditions of the poorest people on the planet.
Rich countries already depleted all ecosystems, and now try to deplete some more with their sustainability policy plans. Rare metals are a notorious example, e.g. lithium and cobalt, used in batteries for laptops, mobile telephones, and electric vehicles. Mining these metals, every sustainability ambition, and every human right is ignored.
For the next 2 or 3 decades, all ethics are forgotten when it comes to reaching the greenhouse gas emission levels of rich countries. And yes, these mining practices violate many ecosystems, most significantly those which are vital to the poor.
Sustainability plans must first alleviate poverty in the world
In low-income economies, the economies poor people depend upon, almost 80% of the population is engaged in agricultural or resource-based activities. This means that worldwide some 3 billion – predominantly poor – people depend on the exploitation of natural resources.
Only very rarely these poor people reap the profits others make from the resources they depend upon. As a consequence, every sustainability plan, no matter whether they are designed by governments or companies, must aim at alleviating poverty in the world. This requires that:
- All institutional sustainability plans (financial, rules and legislation, decision making, management, organizational) protect and support the natural resources on which poor people depend;
- The profits involved with the use of these natural resources by others than those who depend on them are primarily taxed in the countries where the poorest live, and these profits are primarily re-invested in industrial activities, infrastructure, health services, and education in the countries of the poorest;
- The vulnerable environments in which the poorest live are only touched upon by others provided all natural resources used, and possible damage done to them, is restored – if need be retroactive – and the lives of the poor are verifiably improved.
These requirements imply that poverty is not reduced due to direct investments in the improvement of ecosystems or biodiversity. Poverty in the world can only be reduced when the lives of the poorest are improved by ending the exploitation of the ecosystems they live in. This is a highly delicate operation in which the poor contribute a major effort.
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