Paris Climate Talks

See What Climate Change Means for the World’s Poor

Changes to weather, agriculture, and health disproportionately affect poorer countries and further complicate the Paris climate talks. 

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A child works in a factory in India. Apart from environmental devastation, climate change could have disastrous effects for poorer countries. 


Climate change has been linked to increased frequency and intensity of destructive weather events, such as floods and hurricanes. But the effects of a warming planet on crops may pose an even greater danger, especially for the world’s poor, according to the World Bank.

“Agriculture is one of the most important economic sectors in many poor countries,” says a report from the institution. “Unfortunately, it is also one of the most sensitive to climate change given its dependence on weather conditions, both directly and through climate-dependent stressors (pests, epidemics, and sea level rise).”

The report focuses on developing economies and doesn’t include North America, Australia, or a handful of other areas. It sets up two scenarios to project the effects of climate change. The “prosperity scenario” is optimistic: It predicts strong economic growth, fewer people living in poverty, and improvements in basic services. The “poverty scenario” isn’t as hopeful: It predicts the number of impoverished people will grow from the current 702 million to around 900 million by 2030 without factoring in climate change. When climate change is part of the equation, more than a billion people will be in poverty. Most of that additional 100 million, the report says, will become poor due to rising food prices.

By 2030, effects of climate change on agriculture key to driving people into poverty
Number of people in extreme poverty, in millions

Prosperity scenario*

142

Without climate change

158

With high-impact climate change

Poverty scenario*

900

Without climate change

1,026

With high-impact climate change

126 million more people will be affected with a high-impact climate change. These are the main causes

73

28

19

6

Agriculture

Food prices and production affected

Health factors

Malaria, diarrhea, undernutrition

Reduced labor productivity

Natural disasters

Prosperity scenario*

Without climate change

142

With high-impact climate change

158

Poverty scenario*

Without climate change

900

With high-impact climate change

1,026

With high-impact climate change, 126 million additional people will be affected. Main causes shown.

19

6

73

28

Reduced labor productivity

Agriculture

Food prices and production affected

Health factors

Malaria, diarrhea, undernutrition

Natural disasters

*Scenarios developed based on different social and economic policies
NG STAFF
SOURCES: World Bank; Rozenberg and Hallegatte

Higher food prices can be devastating for the poor. Think about your own budget: How much do you spend on groceries relative to your entire paycheck, your rent or mortgage, or your phone bill? If you’re poor, you spend a higher percentage of your total income on food. In some regions, the poorest residents use more than 60 percent of their income to buy food while for the wealthiest, it’s less than 10 percent.

Poor households spend more of their budget on food
Percent of household budget spent on food

Poorest

Poor

Middle

Wealthier

60%

50

40

30

20

10

0

South Asia

East Asia & Pacific

Latin America & Caribbean

Sub-Saharan Africa

Europe & Central Asia

Middle East & North Africa

Poorest

Poor

Middle

Wealthier

60%

50

40

30

20

10

0

Sub-

Saharan Africa

Europe

& Central Asia

South Asia

Middle East & North Africa

East Asia & Pacific

Latin America & Caribbean

NG STAFF
SOURCE: WORLD BANK

Food prices would increase the most in these regions.

To remedy this, the World Bank recommends preparing for climate change by “developing early warning systems and flood protection, and introducing heat-resistant crops.”

Impact of climate change on agricultural prices over time
Percent change in agricultural prices over time*

2000

2030

2050

2080

Sub-Saharan Africa

+77%

60%

40

South Asia

+23%

20

World

+17%

Latin America & Caribbean

+12%

East Asia & Pacific

+9%

Europe & Central Asia

+3%

0

Middle East & North Africa

-11%

-20

2000

2030

2050

2080

Sub-Saharan

Africa

+77%

60%

40

+23%

South Asia

20

+17%

World

Latin America

& Caribbean

+12%

East Asia &

Pacific

+9%

Europe &

Central Asia

0

+3%

Middle East &

North Africa

-11%

-20

*Estimated under a pessimistic development scenario
NG STAFF
SOURCES: WORLD BANK; Havlík et al.

There are health risks beyond malnutrition. Disease rates are expected to rise. World leaders are now meeting in Paris to negotiate plans to curb CO2 emissions in an effort to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius. The World Bank report says a small rise in temperatures “could increase the number of people at risk for malaria by up to 5 percent, or more than 150 million more people affected. Diarrhea would be more prevalent, and increased water scarcity would have an effect on water quality and hygiene.”

In poor countries, half of all health expenditures are paid out-of-pocket
Percent total share of health care expenditure between different income levels in 2011
NG STAFF
SOURCE: WORLD BANK

Like rising food costs, these diseases would disproportionately affect people with lower incomes who pay more out of pocket for healthcare. Think of it this way: When you pay for medical treatment, how much do you pay in cash? Those in poorer countries pay more than half of their medical bills, while those in richer countries pay less than a quarter, with private insurance, government aid, and other forms of assistance paying for the rest.

These estimates are all based on the most pessimistic model for climate change. If action is taken immediately, some of the effects might be curbed, but the potential for climate change to cause financial ruin or push the world’s poor deeper into poverty remains. What’s more, the poorest countries are the least responsible for the carbon emissions that are warming the planet and putting their residents at risk.

In the chart below, the circles relate to overall emissions, the vertical axis represents pollution per capita, and the horizontal axis is gross domestic product.

The poorest countries not only emit the least CO2 per capita, they also contribute the least total emissions on a global scale. But that presents another problem as these countries try to lift their residents out of poverty, and it’s adding to the complexities of the Paris climate talks.

Poorest countries emit the least CO2, but affected by it the most*

9,000

Amount of total carbon dioxide determines size of circle (metric megatons)

3,000

Carbon dioxide emissions per capita (metric tons)

600

30

Kuwait

25

United Arab Emirates

20

United States

15

Russia

10

Japan

Norway

Germany

China

5

Switzerland

Singapore

India

0

0

10,000

20,000

30,000

40,000

50,000

60,000

70,000

40 poorest countries, based on GDP per capita

GDP per capita**

9,000

Amount of total carbon dioxide determines size of circle (metric megatons)

3,000

600

Carbon dioxide emissions per capita (metric tons)

30

Kuwait

25

United Arab Emirates

20

United States

15

Russia

10

Japan

Germany

Norway

China

Switzerland

5

Singapore

India

0

0

15,000

30,000

45,000

60,000

75,000

GDP per capita**

40 poorest countries, based on GDP per capita

*Includes countries with populations larger than two million
**Gross domestic product per capita converted to international dollars using purchasing power parity rates in 2011
NG STAFF
SOURCE: WORLD BANK

This report from the BBC outlines the issue using India as an example. India’s relatively low per capita pollution is partially the result of its widespread poverty. If poor residents are brought out of poverty, per capita emissions might increase, thereby raising India’s share of global emissions. So countries with sizeable poor populations need two things to come out of the Paris talks. First, they need support for environmentally-sustainable growth around the world. Second, they need wealthier countries to commit to larger cuts in emissions, so there can be room for growth elsewhere.

And that’s why the World Bank, in its report, argues that climate change and poverty reduction can’t be separated as issues, or treated locally. The world needs to resolve both.

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