Coal Is Not the Answer for the World's Poorest People, But Tell That to the Lobbyists

26/11/2015 16:01 GMT | Updated 26/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Communities we work with all over the world are telling us that climate change - mainly caused from burning the fossil fuel coal - is pushing them deeper into poverty. Yet those who advocate for the continued use of coal often espouse the argument that we shouldn't stop poor countries using fossil fuels, given that Britain got rich by burning them. With the UN climate talks starting in a couple of days, fossil fuel lobbyists, some of whom have sponsored the talks, will be doing all they can to convince world leaders that coal is the answer to fuel poverty. It's our job to convince them otherwise.

CAFOD, the development agency I lead, began campaigning on climate change long before the links between poverty and the environment were established. We listened to our partners on the ground telling us that extreme and unpredictable weather was pushing vulnerable people over the edge and we realised then that poverty alleviation - our mission - was impossible without also tackling greenhouse gas emissions. More recently we've been inspired by Pope Francis' call to care for the Earth 'our common home', as he calls it in his powerful encyclical.

The reality is stark: if we don't help poor communities by investing in renewable, efficient energy, we'll be locking them into high-carbon development paths which bring only short-term gains, with enormous environmental costs for us all. If the stakes were high in 2009 before the Copenhagen summit, they're critical now in 2015.

But sustainable development isn't a concept dreamt up by well-meaning aid agencies, it's a necessary paradigm shift recognised by those we work with. Don't just take my word for it: we conducted research with over one hundred partners in the poorest countries, asking them to share their views and concerns. The environment was cited as their second most pressing concern, above health and education. Many spoke of their fears of 'environmentally induced poverty', and climate change ranked as the highest concern for those most worried about the environment.

This is not surprising given that the poorest communities are bearing the brunt of man-made climate change. With access to fewer services and with no safety nets, extreme weather like floods and droughts push people and their families deeper and deeper into poverty. We know, for example, that four out of ten people at highest risk from climate change are already surviving on less than 77p a day. And the majority of those people live in the world's least developed countries. For them, the UN talks are not just another global summit, they're a matter of life and death.

But if burning coal to provide energy for economic growth is precisely what's causing climate change and pushing people deeper into poverty, then what's the answer for wealth creation in the world's least developed nations?

Most people lacking access to electricity live in remote, rural areas, far beyond the grid. The national energy system doesn't reach them, and if it does, the energy it provides is often unreliable and too expensive - for some African nations, new connections cost more than the average monthly income. Other fossil fuel solutions, like paraffin lamps and gasoline, are expensive and lead to health problems such as asthma, people in Kenya tell us.

Off-grid electricity - renewables like solar and wind - connect communities to modern, clean, affordable energy that can power their homes, clinics and businesses, creating opportunities to lift people out of poverty. We've witnessed the power of solar energy in Isiolo, Kenya, where we're working with our partner Caritas Isiolo to supply sustainable energy to a community which, hitherto has had little to no electricity access. It has completely transformed the lives of people in the area. Children who were unable to do their homework because they had no light, are now studying in classrooms illuminated by solar energy. The men, women and children who fall sick after dark are getting access to healthcare in their local clinic (this was impossible before the solar panels were installed), and small businesses are springing up - such as a solar-powered greenhouse project growing tomatoes, providing jobs for a 22-strong women's cooperative.

These are the kinds of sustainable, affordable energy solutions that poor communities need. And they work on a macro-economic level too - solar farms in Morocco, for example, are on track to supply a million homes with sustainable energy.

And yet, despite the clear arguments for renewable energy investment in developing countries, the UK Government spent twice as much on fossil fuels overseas as on sustainable energy sources. The positive steps to tackle poverty and climate change taken by the Department for International Development and the Department for Energy and Climate Change are being undermined by subsidies to fossil fuel companies channelled through the Department of Business, and UK Export Finance in particular. This lack of joined-up thinking must end if the government is serious about supporting developing countries and tackling climate change.

As leaders prepare for the UN climate talks, our voice needs to be loud and clear: we want an agreement that is fair and binding, and which provides the necessary finance and support for poor countries to develop sustainably. We can't let the lobbyists have the last word: too much is at stake.