Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Pro-Poor Approach to Reducing Carbon Emissions

This post is one in a series of debates between myself and Alexander Hurst of the Hurst Critique. In this first post I explain that while carbon emission cuts in the long-term are necessary, developing countries should be prioritizing poverty eradication and sustainable economic growth with their public investment dollars.

Environmentalists and political commentators in the US recently went into a tizzy when India’s Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, told the United States’ Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, that he refused to submit to pressure from the U.S. to lower carbon emissions.The United States is among a host of other rich countries that want to see a coordinated strategy to cut global greenhouse gasses that are contributing to the un-natural warming of our planet. India, like China believes that any significant reduction would impede their attempts at high-speed economic growth---a necessary aspect of poverty eradication.

Of course there is indisputable evidence that global warming is a threat to all countries rich or poor, but scientists agree that the impact of climate change will not be shared equally among actors. Poorer developing countries will bare the larger brunt of a warming process that was almost exclusively generated by pollution in richer nations over the last 200 years. It is unrealistic for industrialized countries to expect poor nations to commit to excessively broad carbon emissions reduction proposals. In this part of the world it is poverty eradication, not an impending environmental catastrophe that is the spending priority for governments.

Global Poverty is the Planets Greatest Catastrophe

The future catastrophic effects of global warming have gotten prime time coverage in the western press, and rightly so. Even though there remain a few skeptics on the lunatic fringes, the majority of political actors in the US, Europe, Japan and Australia accept the consensus of scientists that an epic environmental crisis lies ahead.

There is however, a tinge of euro-centrism among many environmental advocates and politicians that is troubling. There is virtually no political action or debate about the silent killers of poverty, hunger, and disease that kill millions of people right now, (not some uknown date in the distant future). The massive amount of death taking place in the poorest regions of the planet are lucky to gain any public audience in the dominant media.
  • 25,000 children die every day around the world.
  • 10.6 million died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5 (same as children population in France, Germany, Greece and Italy)
  • 2.2 million children die each year because they are not immunized
  • 1.4 million die each year from lack of access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation
  • Each year, more than 8 million people around the world die because they are too poor to stay alive.
  • Every year there are 350–500 million cases of malaria, with 1 million fatalities: Africa accounts for 90 percent of malarial deaths and African children account for over 80 percent of malaria victims worldwide.
  • Some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. (source)
These are just a few statics that underscore the catastrophic effects of global poverty around the world. What these numbers do not highlight however is that it was the rapid economic growth of the United States and Europe over the last two centuries that contributed to massive improvements of social services and living standards. For example the life expectancy of a US male at the beginning of the 20th century was 48 years old. By the end of the century, that number had increased to 74.

Even given that it was done through destructive fossil fuels, Sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction in richer nations saved millions of lives over the last century. This same trend is taking place in emerging countries today. Public resources should be used to continue this progress and sustain it by reducing dependence on fossil fuels responsibly and in phases. More on this later on.

Global Poverty Worsens the Impact of Climate Change

Keep in mind that scientists agree that even if we were to act today to curb carbon emissions, the damage we have done so far is already irreversible. Developing countries are suffering the effects of climate change including increasing cases of drought, water scarcity, desertification and flooding right now. Poverty leaves millions of people vulnerable to these changes and they are more likely to see their livelihoods threatened by the effects. The political, and social turmoil caused by these environmental shocks could destabilize entire countries or significant regions. Global warming has increased the costs of being poor like never before and now for countries like India, lifting people out of poverty is vital to protecting them from its impacts. The spending priorities in developing countries must work toward containing the human suffering caused by climate change using public resources to reduce poverty and protect poor families particularly in rural areas.

Research and Development Takes Time

Today, there are thousands of new technologies being developed which would replace the carbon emitters we rely on. However, these replacements are far from being capable of supplanting current energy technologies. Countries like India and China are making key investments in alternative sources of energy that will allow them to continue reducing poverty over the long-term including solar, hydro, nuclear, and wind. But like in the United States this process will take time and money, both of which put poor developing countries at a disadvantage. Developing countries face a host of financial constraints that mean that they must use the public resources that they do have wisely. While research and development is essential, a responsible strategy to sustain poverty reduction and growth while phasing out carbon emitters is more viable. This was one of the major concerns of the Indian government in consultations with the US.

A Pro-Poor Strategy to Fight Global Warming

There are good intentions why the US would like to see developing countries commit to a broad declaration in support of carbon reductions over a period of decades. If developing countries follow the same path as the western world and Japan, we would need several additional planet earths to contain all of the waste. However, there are a series of challenges facing poor countries today that absolutely cannot be put off---these include the effects of western generated climate changes. The most important question in my opinion is where the governments in developing countries can get the highest-value return for their public investment dollars? The US would be wise to assist developing countries in reaching those spending priorities to free up resources in places like India, China or South Africa to phase out dirty energy altogether. As cleaner technologies and capabilities emerge, poorer countries are likely to make the switch---Brazil and China have already become leaders in the field of alternative energy. What we do know for sure, is that millions of people will die in the years to come if we do nothing to reverse the scourge of global poverty in the world. But don't count on the dominant media or the politicians to admit it.

1 comment:

  1. I posted my reply here: