Can mobile banking, insurance protect the poor from climate losses?

Saturday, 5 December 2015 22:02 GMT

A woman sits at her home in a flooded village outside Zalun Township, Irrawaddy Delta, Myanmar, August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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What might work to keep climate shocks from pushing people back into poverty?

In India's Andhra Pradesh state, 14 percent of families escape poverty each year, the World Bank says. But another 12 percent of families fall into poverty. That leaves the state with only a small gain from efforts to improve the lives of the poor each year.

Why are so many people going backwards? In most cases – 44 percent of the time – it’s because crops fail. In other cases, it is food price spikes, natural disasters or health shocks such as malaria that deplete families' resources.

What’s worrying, as the world tries to meet new global goals to end extreme poverty and hunger by 2030, is that “in most cases climate change will make these shocks worse”, warned Stephane Hallegatte, a senior economist with the World Bank and lead author of a bank report on managing climate change impacts on poverty.

But there’s plenty that could be done to help make poor families more resilient to climate shocks, he and other experts said on Saturday at Development and Climate Days, a gathering on the sidelines of the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris.

The poor, for instance, lose a bigger share of their savings each time a flood hits because their money is not in bank accounts but in vulnerable housing, livestock or crops that are hard to move to safety.

“It’s not that they are more often affected but that when they are affected, they lose more,” Hallegatte said.

Giving poor people better access to banking via mobile phone, allowing them to save money safely, could help, he said. So could making it easier for them to access insurance, widening their ways of earning money, or providing government safety net payments.

India, for instance, offers everyone 100 days of government-paid labour each year on public works projects, and Ethiopia runs government work-for-food and work-for-cash programmes for the poorest, development experts said.

Carefully thought-out efforts to curb climate-changing emissions can also have big benefits for poor families.

Spending money on making agriculture greener and more resilient to shocks, building better public transport systems and getting renewable energy systems to the poorest can both improve their lives and reduce climate change impacts, said Ilmi Granoff, who leads “green growth” work at the UK-based Overseas Development Institute.

Cutting emissions – as well as helping poor people adapt to climate shifts – is crucial because adaptation will not be possible to runaway climate impacts, Granoff and others warned.

“Adaptation is only a partial and limited solution,” he said. “As you move past a 2-degree (warmer) world, the costs skyrocket in our ability to adapt to climate changes.”

LIGHTS NOT ENOUGH

What else might both cut emissions and help the world's poor cope with climate change?

How about eliminating the estimated $500 billion a year spent on fossil fuel subsidies, and instead allowing countries to give some or all of that money as a direct cash transfer to its people, with everyone getting the same amount?

Such a “flat” transfer would benefit the poor most because it would provide a significant boost to their incomes and help them offset higher fuel costs, Hallegatte said. For rich people who use much more energy, the benefit would be substantially less.

Helping poor people gain access to renewable energy to power lights in their homes can improve their lives but is not enough to transform them, said Srinivas Krishnaswamy of India’s Vasudha Foundation.

“Energy access doesn't equal poverty alleviation,” he said.

Instead, he urged the creation of renewable energy power grids in remote and poor places big enough to power crucial services like irrigation pumps, heating and cooling of homes, cooking and agriculture-related businesses, such as food processing.

Someone, however, will have to pay for all these changes. It is relatively easy to attract funding for clean energy projects; less so to help people protect themselves from extreme weather and rising seas – something private investors often see no return on.

Emily Wilkinson, a researcher with the Overseas Development Institute, suggested pointing out that putting money into efforts to reduce disaster risk and help people adapt could not only reduce losses but spur greater economic growth.

When people have access to insurance, for instance, they are more likely to invest cash into their businesses, secure that it won’t be lost if disasters strike.

When enough people do that, it can add up to a healthier economy that in turn profits those investors that helped make insurance available.

“The benefits are very difficult to quantify, but potentially huge,” she said.

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