Sunday, 27 August 2006

Aid, Trade and Global Warming

There’s a lot of debate about how best to help people in poor and disaster-prone communities around the world. Finding the right balance between trade and aid seems particularly hard. Do donations of money, food, and equipment meet urgent basic needs, or do they just encourage dependency and relieve local leaders of responsibility to care for their own people? One aid agency representative recently compared aid donations to “crack” cocaine. Given aid's mixed track record, the World Bank and others have spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out when it helps, and when it harms.

Maybe trade is the way forward? The WTO and others argue that integrating local producers into the global economy is the best way to channel money into local communities around the world and encourage more efficient production. Mexican maize farmers forced off their land to make way for this efficient process might beg to differ. Groups like Fairtrade and EqualExchange try to make sure that local producers benefit from this exchange. Meanwhile, UK consumers, worried about “food miles” are beginning to wonder whether they want to buy flowers and produce flown in from Kenya and other developing countries.

So what does all this have to do with global warming?

A few weeks ago, a development aid campaigner attended a screening of “An Inconvenient Truth” in London. Afterwards, she asked Al Gore what we should do to address the impacts of climate change on people in poorer countries – since they would be most vulnerable to floods, drought, and the like. Soon an email began making the rounds boasting about catching Gore off guard.

That aid campaigner raises a legitimate question, but it’s based on two assumptions. First, that drastic climate change is inevitable; and second, that there’s nothing we can do between now and then to reduce people’s vulnerability.

I hope both of those assumptions are wrong. I believe that working together, we can all take action – right here and right now to limit climate change. While aid is important when people need immediate help, I also believe that the right kinds of trade can raise incomes and improve livelihoods in poor communities. With less poverty, communities can be better prepared for disasters, whether from climate change, political strife or other causes.

When you and I purchase carbon offsets for our driving or airplane flights, we are not making an aid donation. We are buying carbon credits that are generated through the hard work of people and organisations around the world. We are not simply paying to relieve our guilt. These credits represent real, measurable action to reduce climate change. And when the credits come from projects that improve local livelihoods, they serve a double benefit by reducing poverty and vulnerability.

Buying carbon offsets is not a cure-all. But, properly designed, they can be part of the solution to two problems.

(Carbon Clear home page)