14 November 2014

Reflecting on inequality

Options Magazine Winter 2014/15: How IIASA is creating positive narratives for the path to sustainable development.

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Traditionally, different sectors of society focus on their own challenges. Until now, no one has assembled an interdisciplinary team with different emphases and perspectives, able to view complex problems, such as inequality, from unusual, unconventional, or unexpected angles. The newly formed Alpbach–Laxenburg Group (ALG) aims to bridge this gap by bringing together leading minds from academia, governments, business, civil society, and the arts to develop positive narratives on issues of global transformation. The group’s first focus is inequality, and in a high level retreat during the 2014 European Forum Alpbach, the group discussed how inequality should be a primary focus for the post‑2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

The retreat concluded with a plenary session at the European Forum Alpbach Political Symposium, where the key issues of generational inequality and inequality in energy and climate were discussed. Lack of energy access translates into limited opportunities for education and employment, as well as negative health impacts, which primarily affect women and children. Generational inequality refers to the greater burden on the world’s young people, who face high unemployment and challenging economic prospects for the future.

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Energy poverty

People usually talk about inequality in terms of wealth, but disparities in energy access can in some cases be greater than inequality in income—with a major impact on people’s livelihoods and health.

Results from the 2012 Global Energy Assessment showed that the poorest 40% of the world’s population only account for 10% of global income and energy use, while the richest third account for two‑thirds. Inequality in electricity access is even greater with around a fifth of the population currently having no access to electricity at all. The distribution of modern fuels also remains highly unequal, with a much higher dependence on solid biomass fuels in the least developed countries.

A lack of adequate and affordable energy supplies limits people’s opportunities to work, study, and earn money. It also has a negative impact on human health and welfare—particularly in the case of women and children who are exposed to harmful emissions from cooking with solid fuels. Energy poverty—the lack of access to modern energy—therefore contributes to chronic or persistent poverty.

Poverty eradication vs. climate change

New research recently published in Nature Climate Change addressed the question of conflict between poverty eradication and climate change.

Narasimha Rao, research scholar in IIASA’s Energy Program, says, "Many people associate raising living standards in developing countries with increases in greenhouse gas emissions. However, our research shows that it may take fewer emissions to raise the poor’s basic living
standards than it does to grow affluence. If this is the case, then progressive development policies may well support climate mitigation.”

The study used data on well recognized poverty indicators—adequate nourishment, water supply and sanitation and electricity access—to relate countries’ growth over time to these indicators and to emissions, and suggests that climate research needs to focus on how countries’ emissions growth relates to the services people are provided.

The opportunity of education

IIASA World Population Program Director Wolfgang Lutz argues that policies aimed at improving human wellbeing need to consider inequality within human populations, such as differences in entitlements, including education.

The “Laxenburg Declaration”—a policy paper produced by an international scientific panel convened by IIASA in 2011—stated that there is clear evidence that demographic differences affect people’s ability to participate in sustainable development and that these populations are identifiable by age, gender, education, place of residence, and standard of living.

IIASA’s World Population Program has produced a consistent set of reconstructions and projections of educational attainment distributions by age and sex for 195 countries worldwide (see Quality not quantity). These data provide an important portrait of inequality across and within both populations and age groups and demonstrate that both the level and distribution of education can have significant positive effects on both population and economic growth.

Taking action

During the Alpbach Forum, Mary Robinson, Former President of Ireland, President of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice, and ALG member, said, “We can address the huge poverty gaps in the world, and we have a means to provide sustainable energy for all, whatever the economic system. We all need to change. We need governance, business, and civil society. We need young people and women to, say, ‘take responsibility.’ I hope we can all go away to contribute to a movement to contribute to the right decisions in 2015.”

The Alpbach–Laxenburg Group aims to support three major decision making processes slated for 2015: The Financing for Sustainable Development Conference (12–15 July); the adoption
of the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations (23 September); and the pledge for a global climate agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris (30 November–11 December).

IIASA Director General and CEO Professor Dr. Pavel Kabat said, "The next 18 months will be decisive for the path that our world will take. We will have these three fundamental moments in 2015 when we can make a real difference. The Alpbach–Laxenburg Group is poised to provide cross‑sectoral rigor and input to these three key moments in the world’s decisive discourse.”

Further info: Rao ND, Riahi K, Grubler A (2014). Climate impacts of poverty eradication. Nature Climate Change 4(9):749–751 [doi:10.1038/nclimate2340].


In August the Alpbach–Laxenburg Group (ALG) produced a declaration pointing to inequality as a key target for the post‑2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

“We identify three groups in particular: the world’s poorest people, often forgotten and struggling daily for survival; the world’s women and girls, still facing legal and social barriers to full participation and empowerment; and the world’s young, facing the stark crises of high unemployment and seemingly diminished lifetime economic prospects.”

“Yet the Alpbach–Laxenburg Group also emphasizes that the recent advances in science and technology—most dramatically in the form of the information and communications revolution—have the potential to empower these groups and thereby to promote societies that are fair, inclusive, and with broadly shared prosperity.”

The full declaration and list of ALG members are available online.

Text by Philippa Brooks

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Last edited: 21 November 2014


Wolfgang Lutz

Program Director

World Population

T +43(0) 2236 807 294

Narasimha Rao

Senior Research Scholar


T +43(0) 2236 807 216

Options Winter 2014/2015


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