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The undeniable link between poverty and the climate emergency

Cosy homes and thriving communities: solutions for poverty and climate change

We live in testing times. In the aftermath of the pandemic, we have a cost of living crisis that is pushing so many families into poverty, and we also have the looming impact of climate change to deal with. What is often forgotten is that, in fact, poverty and the climate emergency are two sides of the same coin, that can and need to be addressed together. 

As a global organisation, Save the Children is acutely attuned to the fact that climate change disproportionately affects those experiencing poverty. People experiencing poverty are often more susceptible to the impacts of climate change, as well as less likely to have the resources to adapt to the effects of the collapsing climate: if you struggle to afford food, installing a heat pump is but a pipedream. On the other hand, if we overcome poverty, communities can become more resilient and can reduce, mitigate, and adapt to climate change. 

For people already in poverty, the climate crisis will make things worse in two ways:

  • Directly: cheaper and lower quality housing is often lacking insulation or built in areas more susceptible to extreme weather (i.e. on flood plains, or places susceptible to wildfires, colder winters).
  • Indirectly: extreme weather affects crop yields leading to resource scarcity which will drive up consumer prices. This disproportionately affects those already struggling to make ends meet.

There is no question, the climate crisis will drive even more people into poverty. While the most devastating impacts of the climate emergency are felt in the global south with severe weather events, famine, desertification, and most recently, flooding, we are by no means immune in the UK and are already experiencing drought, devastating wildfires and flooding.  Conflicts over scarce resources elsewhere will continue to push up the cost of basics: the food we eat and the energy we use will become more expensive. This hurts families experiencing poverty the most: They spend a much higher proportion of income on such basics. This is particularly unfair because their own carbon footprint is much lower.

We therefore need to tackle both poverty and climate change at the same time, with solutions that impact both. If we fail to do so, any short term 'fix' for poverty will be just that – short sighted and soon to be overrun by the long-term costs of climate change. It’s no longer enough to tinker at the edges, or look for the next fracking site or oil field.

How do we link policies and actions that mitigate climate change, and also reduce poverty?

We need to make the links between climate and poverty more visible, both in government policy and implementation. If we apply a green and poverty lens in all we do, we can ensure to create the bridges and links needed.

A green transition: We mustn’t lose sight of working towards a low carbon economy. An energy transition isn’t easy but offers opportunities of new areas of employment. However, often these new opportunities are gendered and may not benefit women in equal parts. We must consider ways to address this, such as widening the definition of 'green jobs' to include low carbon professions which are not directly connected to energy, such as professions in the care sector.

Cosy homes: government investment and incentives for Insulating homes will save families money, keep them warm and also reduce carbon emissions. Retrofitting and ensuring newly built houses are insulated to high standards must be a priority. Investment in heat pumps and solar power in the social housing sector as well as all new builds will also be needed.

Getting places: Better public transport infrastructure and cheaper public transport particularly for those least able to afford it will both get cars off roads and make our cities and towns people-friendly once again.  It will also connect communities and make it cheaper and easier to get to work or to take part in leisure activities. By making particularly bus travel affordable and better integrated, use of public transport will increase and a better transport system will be viable. It’ll reduce car dependency and the financial pressures of car ownership, while also improving the air quality and health for all. 

Thriving neighbourhoods: Let’s bring work, services and childcare to the people and be serious about enabling 20-minute neighbourhoods. Imagine communities where everyone can access work, play and services easily and locally. This will reduce stress and foster connected communities, which we know will improve social capital and reduce isolation while also having a positive economic impact.

Keep energy local: As we’ve come to realise that relying on energy imports carries risks, community produced and owned energy and an investment in renewable energy can further increase the resilience of all communities. In fact, renewable energy uniquely offers a way to decentralise energy. and create local and community value. We mustn’t jump on extracting more fossil fuels - as tempting as this may be in the current crisis.

All too often we are led to believe that we can only either tackle poverty or the climate crisis. The truth is that we can, and must, tackle both. The good news is that this is entirely possible and achievable.