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UK Aid: Killing Many Birds with One Stone

By tweaking the UK’s climate programmes to include highly effective projects in the world’s poorest countries, we can:

  • Avoid the political fallout over the Foreign Aid cut,

  • Improve women’s rights,

  • Reduce CO2,

  • Help the environment

  • AND Save money!

The decision to cut the UK aid budget is highly controversial; with many viewing it as inhumane and damaging to the UK’s standing at the same time.

Fortunately there is a better solution with many positive externalities, including actually saving money. Here’s how:

  • Take at least £4.5bn (0.2% of Gross National Income) from budgets allocated to the least efficient domestic climate change projects, and transfer it back to the UK aid budget.

  • Ring-fence this cash for high-impact climate programmes in the poorest countries.

  • Tweak our climate targets, to allow a portion to be achieved through the most effective projects in the world’s poorest countries. The current distinction is arbitrary. One tonne of CO2 in Timbuktu is the same as one tonne of CO2 in Tyneside.

  • Bank the resulting net CO2 savings to help meet our climate goals.

  • Carefully selected CO2 reduction policies in the poorest countries are several times more cost-effective than UK-based initiatives AND have positive externalities.

If we do not do this, the environmental benefits of the UK’s Green Infrastructure Programmes will simply be offset by the environmental impacts of the aid cuts.

The Challenges of Our New Climate Targets

The UK has committed to some ambitious climate targets, particularly net zero by 2050.

There are some major challenges here.

The most obvious is that we don’t know how much it will cost, how exactly we will get there, or even if it will be possible.[1]

What we do know is that the outlay will be substantial and with significant disruption. The likelihood is that the burden will fall disproportionately on the Nation’s poorest. For example, rising utility bills hit the poorest hardest. Surely it would be better to help the World’s poorest than burden Britain’s poorest?

Then there is the problem of negative externalities. That is, achieving one good thing means doing other bad things. Palm oil was once trumpeted as a solution to climate change, then everyone realised that rainforests were being chopped down to plant it. Wood burning was another solution. Huge subsidies encouraged landowners to install enormous boilers and run them full blast in the middle of summer. Only now are we beginning to understand how polluting wood-burners can be. Manufacturing solar panels produces vast amounts of toxic waste.[2]

Even wind farms have their fair share of problems, including environmental destruction and the sidelining of local communities. The latest wind farm projects in Shetland are a classic example of political spin riding roughshod over local communities and natural habitats. Given the destruction of vast tracts of peat-land (one of the most potent carbon sinks), it is questionable whether projects like these are even carbon neutral! [3]

Big, centrally-planned projects also have another problem: obsolescence. Many of the proposals will take so long that they are guaranteed to be outdated before the ribbon is cut. Hinkley Point is a perfect example. And let’s not forget, over the past 70 years, government energy policy has gone through obsessions with coal, nuclear, hydro, gas and a whole range of renewables. Every one of them was supposed to be the panacea.

Furthermore, many are unlikely to ever get off the ground. Let’s face it, project execution is not the government’s strong point. HS2 has shown how the growing chorus of local opposition to big infrastructure and building schemes can be politically disastrous.

Right now, green technologies are evolving so rapidly that committing to anything will almost certainly leave you wrong-footed with an expensive, stranded asset for years to come. Nimble, decentralised, market-based solutions are a better bet.

How Emerging Countries Can Do It Better

Pound for pound, what is the most economical way to mitigate climate change?

The answer is projects to recycle refrigerants.[4] Old fridges and the like contain CFCs and HFCs, whose molecules are 11000 times more powerful at causing global warming than CO2. In many emerging countries they are often dumped rather than recycled. Mitigation projects like this have positive externalities; such as reducing damage to the ozone layer while creating local jobs and logistics networks.

The non-profit organisation, Project Drawdown, ranks the most efficient ways to reduce climate change, most of which involve the world’s poorest economies.[5] If we want to meet our climate change commitments, come in on budget, AND keep our aid budget, why not start there?

Women’s Education, Women’s Rights & Family Planning - The Gift That Just Keeps Giving

Voluntary family planning and enhancements of women’s rights in the world’s poorest countries is roughly FIVE TIMES more cost effective at reducing emissions than conventional green initiatives.[6]

When combined with other measures to reduce the birth rate - particularly promoting women’s education and employment - this is the ultimate way to address not just climate, but the whole range of environmental problems. Best of all, it has dozens of positive side-effects, some of which I detail below.[7]

This is not just a short-term solution, but a gift that keeps on giving, generation after generation.

As countries develop, their per capita environmental impact and carbon footprint increases. At 1.8 tonnes per annum, an Indian has roughly ten times the footprint of a Madagascan; and an American has ten times the footprint of an Indian.

Thus, if you can lower the number of births in a very poor village by five, that might save about a tonne of carbon each year. In a generation’s time that may be eight fewer people, and with more economic development that’s fifteen tonnes saved. In the generation after that it may be ten people meaning a saving of 200 tonnes! The benefits grow exponentially.

Because female education is the single clearest determinant of population growth, if developing nations are able to adopt a similar demographic trajectory to South Korea, and achieve 100 percent school enrolment for girls by 2050, there would be 843 million fewer people worldwide than on the current trajectory.[8]

Reducing population growth through improved life choices produces a dizzying list of positive externalities, including:

· A reduction in climate change and lower environmental degradation.

· With slower population growth and higher educational attainment, it is easier to mitigate climate change, through, e.g. migration, infrastructure and water management.

· An increase in global growth. It is very difficult for a nation of teenagers to make much economic progress. It is when countries see a dramatic drop in birth rates that economic growth takes off: as in Japan, Korea, China and Singapore. Furthermore, educated girls realize higher wages and greater upward mobility, contributing to economic growth.

· Infant mortality rates fall.

· Abusive and forced marriages become less common, as women are empowered to live and work for themselves.

· Less civil war, less terrorism and less violence. No matter where in the world you look, research has found a strong link between population growth and war.[9] The same is true of terrorism. This is largely because a surging population puts too much pressure on resources, particularly water. That can leave people with no choice but to fight to survive.

In addition, large families are more likely to produce violent men or terrorists. In traditional societies, all the attention is normally heaped on the first born son. The only way subsequent sons can gain the attention and esteem they crave is by doing something radical. Mohammed Awal bin Laden was married 22 times, with 54 children. His 17th child was Osama bin Laden.[10]

Penny Wise and Pound Shy

Worryingly, the latest list of UK Aid initiatives being cut is chock full of women’s education and family planning projects.[11]

The resulting Climate Impact from shelving these will, in the long term, exceed the benefits of the UK’s net zero plans in spite of coming at a fraction of the cost. What is the point in spending hundreds of billions to build green, then undoing all the good work in order to save a few billion elsewhere?!!

On the back of the HS2 and Track & Trace debacles, the UK Government is gaining a reputation for pinching pennies with one hand while blowing billions with the other. That is unlikely to impress voters of any type.

Given the UK government’s express commitments to free markets, where is the free market for meeting climate change commitments in the most efficient way for tax payers? Reinstating or even expanding the aid budget could achieve exactly that.

Finally, as the UK signs new trade deals post-Brexit, it should give preferential treatment to those countries making a real effort to improve the lives of women and reduce birth rates, while penalising those who do not. The former are likely to make better trading partners anyway, with higher growth and fewer conflicts.

UK Aid
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[1] Net Zero by 2050 may be the law, but we still have no idea how much it will cost - CapX [2] If Solar Panels Are So Clean, Why Do They Produce So Much Toxic Waste? ( [3] Work begins on Viking Energy windfarm on Shetland | HeraldScotland [4] One cheap way to fight climate change? Dispose of old CFCs. ( [5] About Project Drawdown | Project Drawdown [6] Fewer feet, smaller footprint | The Economist Voluntary family planning to minimise and mitigate climate change | The BMJ 08-062562.pdf ( [7] Pop-Climate Policy Brief_nov27.pdf ( [8] Global Human Capital: Integrating Education and Population | Science ( [9] Does population growth cause conflict? | VoxDev [10] Bin Laden family - Wikipedia [11] Tracking the UK’s controversial aid cuts | Devex

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