When it comes to mitigating climate change there are two major approaches: weaning ourselves off fossil fuels (reducing emissions of greenhouse gases) and avoiding deforestation (maintaining our carbon sinks). Both actions will help, but what kind of impact will they have on people's everyday lives?

Zekarias Hussein, from Purdue University, US, and colleagues considered two differing mitigation policy actions, using an economic-climate policy analysis framework. Under the first scenario only developed countries took action, by reducing their burning of fossil fuels. Under the second scenario the developed countries continued to take the same action, but developing countries also took action using forest carbon sequestration policies (avoiding deforestation, for example).

Results showed that only the first scenario was "poverty friendly", because it enhanced the competitiveness of developing countries, especially in agricultural production. "Essentially this policy taxes emissions in the rich countries, thereby reducing their competitiveness and benefiting other regions," said Hussein. As expected, this scenario had only a minor impact on per-capita income in developed countries. For example the US would be expected to experience a 0.085% reduction in average income, and European countries a 0.136% drop.

But unfortunately this scenario is limited in its ability to mitigate climate change. "It represents a serious commitment to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but it is not enough for climate stabilization," explained Hussein, whose findings are published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL). "The most rapidly growing emissions are in the developing regions (China and India, for example) and this scenario does nothing to slow emissions growth there."

The second scenario, by contrast, tended to raise poverty in most developing countries, but was much more effective at mitigating climate change (reducing annual emissions by 4.5 Gt CO2 equivalent compared to 3.8Gt CO2 for the first scenario). "The problem is that this policy raises food prices, which is bad for the poor, and it raises land prices, which does not benefit the poor in most regions of the world," Hussein told environmentalresearchweb.

Some people have suggested incentive payments for forest carbon sequestration, to offset this poverty trap, but in many countries this money would fail to reach the people who need it most. "The hardest hit countries are Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico," said Hussein. "These are all countries in which urban poverty is dominant and land ownership amongst the poor is quite limited". Instead Hussein and colleagues suggest that the best way to counteract poverty in these situations would be through socio-economic development measures that more directly target the poor, such as improved healthcare, education and access to markets.

From a climate change perspective the second scenario is obviously the one to choose, but the cost would weigh much more heavily on developing nations. "This result is troubling, since forest carbon sequestration – particularly through avoided deforestation – is a promising, low-cost option for climate change mitigation," writes the team.

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