Carbon Offsetting May Be Means of Fighting Global Poverty

Carbon offsets allow the use of carbon-emitting processes to help fund and develop clean alternatives, which can then compete with and possibly replace the offending carbon-emitters. But there are also ways in which carbon offsetting can be used to combat poverty around the world. If offsets are focused on reducing bad habits, resulting from those engaging in those habits having either no alternative or no training to find alternatives, people living in the poorest conditions can find themselves benefitting from the clean energy revolution.

The group CarbonAided, which helps inform, and provide guidance for implementing carbon offsets, is now seeking to establish means by which carbon offsetting can produce real-world benefits for marginalized and poor communities in developing countries. Breaking the cycle of bad carbon practice the world over requires this step be taken, and the logic of doing it through carbon offsetting is that developing countries can be brought up to speed on emissions reductions by the same process that helps developed industrial countries break their bad habits.

The UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) are a set of parameters set up by UN agencies, in conjunction with governments and NGOs, that aim to improve the lot of the world’s poorest people and thus help to resolve percolating crises of international scope and reduce the temptations of conflict and the risks to public health that result from scarcity and deprivation.

The MDG have been difficult to meet, in part because the richer nations have treated them like a gift to the poor, an extracurricular activity whose return-on-investment they don’t know how to measure. The MDG aim to achieve bold priorities by the year 2015: to end poverty and hunger, achieve universal education, gender equality, child health and maternal health, effectively combat HIV/AIDS, improve treatment and impede its spread, achieve viable environmental sustainability and standards of global partnership that allow the world’s nations to work together in a credible and energetic way to resolve these issues.

A shift in the carbon waste-scape could assist in changing the dynamics related to poverty, education, maternal and child health, and environmental sustainability. And, if implemented in the right ways, be helpful in fostering global partnership. 

As CarbonAided artfully explains:

For example, by substituting a clean biogas cooker for an open wood fire, the air in the kitchen is transformed from an un-breathable smog which, according to the World Health Organisation is responsible for the deaths of 1.5 million women and children each year. Not only does this address the health MDG but since the women no longer have to spend hours gathering fuel wood from increasing distances they can become involved in income generating activities to reduce their poverty. Children released from fuel gathering are able to go to school. An improved energy supply also allows food to be cooked in a more healthy way thus reducing hunger. 4 MDGs are thus addressed by this type of project as well as the significant reduction in carbon and other GHG emissions.

Elimination of a cause of mass death and chronic ill-health by way of one specific, targetting program that can fit into carbon offsetting protocols, allows developed nations’ industrial activity to improve health, reduce hunger, improve education, even promote gender equality. And in the process, total global emissions are reduced, moving the world toward a healthier and more sustainable future.

One of the key factors of carbon offsetting that has spurred skeptics to doubt its practicality is the need to find creative ways to achieve real-world carbon-emissions reductions, substantial enough to offset existing emissions. Fields like the airline transport industry have traditionally adhered to the notion that their industry cannot effectively participate in emissions reductions, because they have no choice but to burn carbon-based fuels in massive quantities.

But carbon offsetting options are expanding widely, and efforts to reduce the use of carbon-based fuels and promote public health and better practice in poor countries mean there is a global menu of options to choose from, to achieve 100% carbon offsets by backing such projects. Making sure irreplaceable emissions, in the short run, correspond to real-world offsets that reduce emissions and improve standards of living elsewhere mean that burgeoning networks of sustainable development projects can help major industry reduce their net carbon footprint to zero.

The Swiss firm Solar Impulse is also building the world’s first solar-powered airplane, which would be entirely emissions free. Airlines can devote funding to such projects or place advance orders, in order to prepare for a future in which they will require fewer offsets to reach a zero net carbon footprint. In the meantime, efforts to reduce carbon emissions worldwide help slow global climate destabilization, which itself also poses more of a threat to the world’s poor than to the richest nations, for geographical and eco-economic reasons.

In India, one group working with CarbonAided, the Hassan Rural Biogas Project, has developed a mechanism for addressing the issues discussed above, related to home cooking fuel and resulting pollutants and time-consumption, but which also reduces the negative impact of farming practices on the local environment and can reduce the spread of chronic poverty:

The farmers’ situation is also not good. Because of the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides the expenditure on agriculture has gone up and the land fertility has come down resulting in lower yields. The use of chemical fertilizers has made the land barren and the water retention capacity of the land has come down drastically. To change this situation, S K G Sangha, have developed a system called ‘Composite vermicompost bio reactor. This system consists of two main parts. One part is a family size bio reactor producing clean gas which can be used for cooking and lighting and the other one is a vermicompost production unit producing high quality fertiliser.

While the composite vermicompost bio reactor system improves the quality of home cooking fuel, and exhaust, it also produces high-grade organic fertilizers. Roughly 50% of the fertilizer produced can be used on the family’s own land, to replace harsh chemical fertilizers that lead to toxic contaminants accumulating in the soil over time and running off into drinking water. The rest of the fertilizer can be sold at market, providing a steady stream of income for the women, improving their conditions and helping the family to combat chronic poverty and better their own future.

Such generative economic strategies mean carbon offsetting aimed at improving conditions in the developing world can help eliminate some of the most serious obstacles to long-term improvements in energy and environmental practice.

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Originally published July 19, 2009, at

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