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The global injustice of the climate crisis

Anne-Sophie Brändlin
August 28, 2019

Countries that are least responsible for causing climate change are the ones suffering most from its effects, especially regarding food insecurity and nutrient deficiencies, reports show. Scientists warn we must act now.

Indien Hitzewelle und Trockenheit
Image: AFP/P. Paranjpe

For years now, environmentalists and scientists have been warning that poorer countries with very low carbon footprints are bearing the brunt of carbon dioxide emissions in the wealthy world. A recent report by the British development charity Christian Aid brings the drama of that inequality into sharp relief.

Hunger Strike: The Climate and Food Vulnerability Index found that the 10 most food-insecure countries in the world generate less than half a ton of CO2 per person. Collectively, they generate just 0.08% of total global CO2.

"What really surprised and shocked me was how strong the negative correlation was between food poverty and very low per capita emission," Katherine Kramer, an author of the report told DW. "It was much stronger than we expected."

Topping the index is Burundi which at just 0.027 tons has the lowest per capita emissions of any country. The figure is so low, in fact, it is often rounded down to zero. By comparison, the average German, American and Saudi generates the same amount of CO2 as 359, 583 and 719 Burundians respectively.

Infografik Top 10 der klimafreundlichsten Länder nach CO2-Ausstoß pro Einwohner EN

As highlighted in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, one of the primary threats to human life as a result of climate change, is food insecurity — especially in the global south, where people rely on small-scale agriculture and are more vulnerable to droughts, flooding and extreme weather.

In Burundi, which is already facing food insecurity as a result of political unrest, and where the prevalence of chronic malnutrition is the highest in the world, changing weather patterns are a major cause for concern. Rainfall in the East African state has become very sporadic over the past three years, particularly in some agriculture-heavy regions, and the report predicts that extreme flooding and droughts will result in a yield decline of between five and 25% in coming decades.

"Burundi is a living testament to the injustice of the climate crisis," Philip Galgallo, Christian Aid's Country Director for Burundi wrote in the report. "Despite producing almost no carbon emissions, we find ourselves on the front line of climate change, suffering from higher temperatures, lower crop yields and increasingly unreliable rains."

Infografik Top 10 der klimaschädlichsten Länder nach CO2-Ausstoß pro Einwohner EN

It's a similar story in the second most food insecure country in the world: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which also has the second smallest carbon footprint. Temperatures there are rising fast imply an increased risk in livestock and crop disease, and rainfall patterns are changing, leaving Congolese farmers unsure about when to plant and when to harvest.  

Risk of nutrient deficiencies

But climate change doesn't only impact crop yields and our ability to grow food. CO2 also has a direct effect on crop nutrients. 

A recent study in the scientific journal, Lancet Planetary Health looked at how climate change and rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are reducing the nutrient content of staple food crops, like rice, wheat, corn and soy. Close to 50 percent of the world's calories come from these grains.

Flooding in Burundi
Extreme floods and droughts in Burundi are estimated to reduce long-term GDP growth by 2.4 percent per yearImage: DW/A. Niragira

The study found that over the next 30 years the availability of critical nutrients for human health, including iron, protein, and zinc, could be significantly reduced if we continue with our current rate of emissions.  

"You'll find a 14 to 20 percent reduction in the global availability of iron, zinc and protein in our diet," study author Seth Myers told DW.

And the implications of this reduction are very significant.

A farmer in Eritrea
Over the next 30 years, critical nutrients like protein, iron and zinc could significantly reduceImage: DW/M. Belloni

"Iron and zinc deficiency today already cause somewhere around 60 million life years to be lost annually, so they are already the cause of very large global burdens of disease today," Myers told DW. "As a result of rising CO2 levels, hundreds of millions of people will fall into life threatening risks of zinc and protein deficiencies and close to a billion people who already have those deficiencies would have them exacerbated."

Such deficiencies increase child mortality from diseases and illnesses like malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea. 

Moral crisis

The people most affected will be in the global south, Myers says, because those at the highest risk of these nutritional deficiencies are the people that have the least diverse diets and least intake of animal-sourced foods, such as meat, milk, eggs, cheese and yogurt.

"And that's sort of ironic because those are the people who are least responsible for emitting the carbon dioxide that's making their food less nutritious," Myers said.  

He describes it as both a public health emergency and a moral crisis.

"There is no excuse for not acting with the utmost urgency when it's our emissions of the wealthy world that are putting the poorest people on the planet in harm's way."

Responsibility to act

Kramer says there are a number of measures the developed world needs to take to address food insecurity and help tackle climate change.

"The first and most important is to cut their own emissions drastically and very quickly," she said. "We can retreat indoors, with our fans and air conditioning.  We have access to water supplies to help cool off. It hasn't hit us in the same way yet, but it is already hitting the developing world."

Myers agrees. "We've got to stop burning fossil fuels, we have to transition to renewables and away from carbon dioxide emissions as fast as we possibly can and we have to feel that moral urgency behind that transition," he said.  

Another important step is to grant support for developing nations. Kramer says this can be financial or in the form of access to technology and education, particularly when it comes to early warning systems that allow countries to see when a disaster is coming so they can prepare for it.

Another step is to help developing states to enhance their resilience and productivity.

Through the Paris Climate Agreement, almost all developed countries in the world have already committed to provide resources to help developing nations combat the effects of climate change, but there are no penalties in place for those that don't honor their promises.

That's why Kramer believes people need to put pressure on their governments to make good on the pledges.

"If we don't clean up our emissions and solve the climate crisis as a global community, then those climate impacts are going to get worse and worse, and millions of lives are at stake."

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