Zero carbon – costs and opportunities for Least Developed Countries

Blog by
10 December 2015

The zero carbon, zero poverty agenda at Development & Climate Days is challenging for all countries. For the Least Developed Countries the costs are high, but the opportunities may be even greater.

Fatima Denton, a member of IIED’s Independent Expert Group, speaking at the Development and Climate Days conference (Photo: Matt Wright)

So what does zero poverty, zero carbon look like? What does it mean for our daily lives – in terms of our energy use, the food we eat, the way we travel, the homes we live in. 

And are governments, policymakers, business, and citizens ready to make those changes? Do we need to recognise that a narrative of change must take different forms in different parts of the world?

These were some of the big questions underpinning discussions at Development & Climate Days (D&C Days) at COP21 in Paris, but as became clear from the different perspectives shared over the two days, the answers are very different depending on where in the world you are talking about.

The stakes are high. A failure to act to mitigate against climate change will push millions back into poverty — with many of the world's poorest people and poorest countries among the most vulnerable to climate change

Energy shift

Transforming the energy system away from coal and other fossil fuel resources lies at the heart of a zero carbon development approach. But as Mariteuw Chimère Diaw from IIED's Independent Expert Group (IEG) reminded the event, this is not a problem for everyone. Many African countries do not need to decarbonise – they were not carbonised in the first place. It is the rich countries that need to act.

Fatima Denton, also a member of the IEG, challenged the narrative of zero poverty. "Which poverty story do we tell?" she asked, pointing to Africa's prosperity in forests, lakes, rivers, and natural resources. 

Africa does not need to go green, it's already green” — Fatima Denton

Ethiopia, one of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), has adopted a zero carbon, zero poverty narrative. The government plans to build a zero carbon economy in a decade. Following this model has high costs, but these costs can also be seen as an opportunity to invest.

"We need to move from an apocalyptic story, to a hopeful one," Denton said.

Adaptation shift

But there are also stories from many of the poorest countries about the challenges of dealing with the daily realities of climate change. This is not about the realities of a 1.5 degree or a 2 degree target being discussed in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change talks. It is about the impacts of climate changes that are already affecting people's lives.

On the island of Carriacou in the Caribbean, part of the vulnerable Small Islands and Developing States (SIDS) where the population relies on a diminishing rainfall harvest for their water supply, neighbours cooperate to share resources – but drought in 2010 meant drinking water had to be imported by barge.

In Bangladesh, cyclones and rising sea levels and storm surges pose a threat to lives and livelihoods. But fishers are minimising the risks, using their knowledge of storm patterns to avoid putting to sea when cyclones threaten.

Others are adapting to the loss of land by migrating to cities in search of work. This adaptation by migration strategy provides a challenge for local authorities in the cities, as populations surge and services are stretched.

So while individuals and communities find solutions out of necessity to deal with the impacts of climate change, there is a need for better planning by authorities at different levels. In Uganda, civil society has played an active role in ensuring that the voices of local communities contributed to plans to address climate change – and that the plans are being integrated at all levels.

"Climate finance cannot be equated with charitable funds" — Fatima Denton

Financial support for adaptation is an essential part of the zero poverty story, and that funding has been "pathetically insufficient", according to UN climate chief Christiana Figueres. 

The Gambian Minister of Environment, Climate Change, Forestry, Water and Wildlife, Pa Ousman Jarju, told a press conference at COP21 that finance was the bedrock of a Paris agreement.

"It is through financial commitments that the confidence and trust that has always been evaded in this process is going to be strengthened," he said.

Addressing this issue – paying the costs of the climate pollution created by fossil fuel driven development – may require innovative solutions. Insurance – the business-as-usual solution to dealing with risk – may have a role to play, but there is also scope for rethinking existing patterns of social protection, integrating adaptation with other work.

Radical transformations

D&C Days promised "tough talk on poverty and climate" – it also provided food for thought, served up by Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam. Some two billion people globally eat insects as part of their diet – crickets, worms and locusts provide a rich source of protein, but produce one hundredth of the emissions generated by raising beef.

Low carbon, climate-friendly development approaches are out there – but we need to be ready to recognise them, to adapt our behaviour and rethink how we all live our lives as part of a zero carbon, zero poverty development model.   

Achieving a legally binding agreement to reduce global emissions in Paris is just part of the story – and it is a story that has been dominated by the developed world.

But new narratives are emerging, including from the Least Developed Countries. We all need to listen to what they have to say. 

Helen Burley ( is communications officer at IIED.