Anyone who followed COP 17 in Durban would have noticed that the UNFCCC and its Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, are active Tweeters. But one Tweet in particular opens up a key issue facing the UNFCCC – what exactly is its remit? The Tweet in question came during COP17 and said:

Global business plan has to have 3 bottom lines: adaptation, mitigation and eradication of poverty. Only way to develop that is sustainable.

This comes close to formalizing a trend that has been an undercurrent of the UNFCCC process for some years now, i.e. dealing with the issue of access to energy (and therefore poverty). There is no doubt that this is a critical global issue and in many instances is a key part of the poverty trap that numerous communities and even nations find themselves in. Access to affordable water, food, shelter and energy are the drivers of development and well-being, with energy often being the lynchpin component. The issue is also linked to the UNFCCC via the adaptation challenge.

The question at hand is not whether access to energy and poverty  should be priorities to act on, but how (or even whether) they should be part of the UNFCCC process. As an issue, poverty seems to have grown under the UNFCCC as mitigation has become increasingly challenging and developing country emissions have grown. In the latter case, the need to use energy and therefore emit CO2 has come with rapid development, which in itself is the most effective way to shift populations out of poverty.

But does all this mean that the eradication of poverty should become a core pillar of the UNFCCC, which seems to be what is happening?

There is little direct justification for such a step in the Convention itself. The words “eradication of poverty” are mentioned, but not as a goal. Rather, for certain countries, poverty acts more as a valid exemption to the requirement for mitigation action. The two instances are:

Affirming that responses to climate change should be coordinated with social and economic development in an integrated manner with a view to avoiding adverse impacts on the latter, taking into full account the legitimate priority needs of developing countries for the achievement of sustained economic growth and the eradication of poverty,

The extent to which developing country Parties will effectively implement their commitments under the Convention will depend on the effective implementation by developed country Parties of their commitments under the Convention related to financial resources and transfer of technology and will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties.

Just as a reminder, the objective of the Convention is stated as follows:

The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.

Based on the above, it could be argued that the eradication of poverty is a necessary precursor to action on climate change. After all, with so many nations claiming “exemption status”, mitigation action is and might remain insufficient to make real progress on lowering global emissions. But given that global energy emissions now stand at some 30 billion tonnes per annum and are rising rapidly, waiting for the eradication of poverty is a questionable strategy.

Given the above “ultimate objective”, a blank sheet of paper and the world in its current state, what should the starting point for action be? Should it be the eradication of poverty?

Harsh though it may sound, the answer is likely to be no. Dealing with poverty should be a global priority, but it probably shouldn’t be so intertwined with the need to reduce emissions and stabilize the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. From another perspective, the two issues could be argued as being largely unrelated. Africa is the poorest continent, yet if it undertook rapid development over the next 40 years with no mitigation action at all and emissions grew at 5% p.a. (well above current rates and comparable to China over the past 40 years), its cumulative emissions over that time would amount to only a tenth of the remaining atmospheric stock for CO2 that equates to a 2°C temperature rise. Meanwhile, the cumulative emissions for everyone else would have more than exceeded the stock limit remaining. In other words, the difficulties faced by Africa could be dealt with using current energy sources and the impact on the mitigation challenge would be minimal. Of course it would be better if Africa grew on a low emissions pathway, but if that remains the global focus we might win the battle and lose the war.

Crafting effective action by those who can both afford it and are relatively high emitters is no easy task, as successive COPs have demonstrated. But introducing “eradication of poverty” as a mainstream theme is unlikely to make the process any easier and quite possibly it could become a major distraction from the real task at hand – stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. By introducing poverty eradication into the core mix of UNFCCC, there is also the risk that much needed funding for emission reduction and adaptation projects is diluted. Clear lines of financial support for mitigation and adaptation under the UNFCCC and poverty eradication through other bespoke channels also helps ensure that funding is truly additional rather than being double counted.

Both challenges are extremely important and the world must address them simultaneously – but putting poverty as a core UNFCCC pillar potentially reduces the effectiveness of the one global body specifically designed to focus on climate change.