Constructive Thinking about Climate Change, Part II

Brief Analyses | Global Warming

No. 570
Friday, September 08, 2006
by Pete Geddes

Over the next 50 years the world's developing nations will seek to emulate the West's material success. Access to cheap and dependable energy is critical to their continued progress from poverty. Electrical energy is especially important - it powers schools, hospitals and water treatment plants.

However, as the energy demands of developing nations grow, so too will greenhouse gas emissions. Global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) are expected to increase from 6.1 billion metric tons in 1999 to nearly 9.8 billion metric tons by 2020. Four-fifths of this projected growth is from developing countries.

Assuming the worst with respect to climate change, greater consumption of fossil fuels is reasonably likely to result in serious environmental harm. How will we meet growing energy demand, especially in the developing world, while dealing responsibly with this challenge?

Priorities of the Developing World. Leaders in the developing world know that improving the quality of life for their citizens requires more, not less, energy consumption. If they fail to provide the energy needed by their economies, they risk not only economic stagnation, but also political and social instability.

While developing countries are pursuing greater access to energy, developed countries are calling for global efforts to combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. During the 1997 Kyoto Conference, China Daily reported, "The United States ... and other nations made the irresponsible demand ... that the developing countries should make commitments to limit greenhouse gas emissions....As a developing country, China has 60 million poverty-stricken people....Ending poverty and developing the economy must still top the agenda of [the] Chinese government."

Developing countries have many serious problems requiring immediate action. For example, 2 million people die each year from malaria - 90 percent are children under five years old. Eradicating malaria, providing access to clean drinking water, reducing infant mortality, increasing female literacy and increasing access to primary education are much higher priorities than climate change. Climate change is not even on the United Nation's priority list for its Millennium Development Goals project.

Higher income Equals less Pollution

A former Indian ambassador to the United States, Naresh Chandra, said, "[A]t the moment we have a much higher and urgent priority, and that is eradication of poverty, removal of backwardness, and improving the level of living of our people. That is a much greater, urgent necessity than the long-term aim of controlling greenhouse gas emissions."

Growth and the Environment. It is a common perception that economic growth exacerbates environmental problems. In fact, however, economic progress is a prerequisite for improving environmental quality. Research shows that as countries begin to industrialize, their environmental quality initially declines. However, once income and economic development reach a certain level, countries devote increasingly larger portions of their resources to environmental protection. As a result, environmental quality improves as per capita gross domestic product (GDP) rises. [See the figure.]

Thus, policies that prevent developing countries from acquiring efficient energy resources and infrastructure limit poor nations' ability to improve the environment. Research has shown that this holds true across time and cultures. For instance:

  • In one survey, levels of sulfur dioxide in 42 countries and smoke (soot) in 19 countries declined as per capita GDP rose to between $6,700 and $8,450 (2003 dollars) - other surveys have found similar results for a broader array of air pollutants.
  • A survey of 10 countries found that 11 of 14 water pollutants declined as income rose; for example, nitrates declined after per capita income reached $3,400 and total fecal coliform bacteria declined at $5,000 (2003 dollars).
  • A study of deforestation in 64 developing countries found the rate at which land was cleared declined as incomes reached $7,900 to $9,100 (2001 dollars).
  • A survey of 68 countries found that water withdrawals from rivers and streams for agriculture fell as incomes reached $14,300.

In the United States, environmental quality has significantly improved as a direct consequence of enormous and sustained investments that only a rich nation can afford. As a result of this wealth and investment, U.S. air quality has improved remarkably. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that from 1970 to 2004:

  • Carbon monoxide decreased 55.8 percent, while nitrogen oxides fell 30.1 percent.
  • Sulfur dioxide - the primary component of acid rain - decreased 51.3 percent, volatile organic compounds decreased 55.5 percent and lead decreased a dramatic 98.6 percent.
  • During the same period, GDP increased 158 percent, miles traveled by cars and trucks rose 143 percent and energy consumption grew 45 percent.

Poverty Is the Worst Polluter. In the developing world, many human-health and environmental problems could be remedied with the proceeds from economic growth. For instance:

  • Developing countries would have more funds to provide safe water sources; every year, 2.5 million people perish from dysentery and other intestinal diseases due to a lack of clean drinking water.
  • Providing electricity and natural gas to rural areas would reduce the health problems related to poor indoor air quality from burning dung and wood for cooking and heat; in addition to cardiovascular diseases, acute lower respiratory infections claim 4.5 million lives per year, mostly in the Third World.
  • The populations of western African apes and gorillas declined by more than half from 1983 to 2000 due to illegal hunting by locals who lack secure sources of food.

These conditions will not improve until people can provide for their families' basic needs - food, shelter, clean water and security. Only then will they turn their attention to more esoteric environmental quality issues - those more distant in time and indirect in effect.

Adapting to Climate Change. A frequent justification for measures to dramatically and rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries is that they will suffer the most damage from climate change; their poor will be at an even greater disadvantage because they are the least able to adapt.

But curbing energy use will simply slow economic progress. Poor land-use practices, a degraded local environment and inadequate emergency preparedness will not be ameliorated by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It won't eliminate floods, droughts or disease outbreaks. The poor suffer most because poverty makes it impossible for them to prevent or adapt to human or natural disasters.

As Daniel Sarewitz and Roger Pielke wrote in the New Republic, "Prescribing emissions reductions to forestall the future effects of disasters is like telling someone who is sedentary, obese and alcoholic that the best way to improve his health is to wear a seat belt."

Wealth Creation First. In a world of limited resources, we must make choices. For the poorest nations, the threats posed by a changing climate pale in comparison to the benefits from increasing energy consumption. In these countries, resources spent reducing greenhouse gas emissions are not available to develop energy infrastructure, prevent or cure disease or reduce poverty. Faced with such choices, it is irresponsible for developed countries to demand that poor countries take dramatic, immediate action on climate change.

According to Nobel Prize-winning economist and climate-change expert Thomas Schelling, the best climate change policy is to emphasize continuous economic growth for the least well-off. Adopting costly, short-term policies that seriously retard economic progress is terribly shortsighted because wealth dramatically increases resiliency, especially to the effects of climate change.

Furthermore, since the truly serious consequences of climate change will not appear for many decades, we should not worry so much about the welfare of future, wealthier and more technologically advanced generations while depriving today's most destitute. Thus, the best climate change policy is to emphasize present economic growth, especially in the developing world.

Pete Geddes is executive vice president of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) and an adjunct scholar for the National Center for Policy Analysis. Contact him at:

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