Viewpoint: End Global Poverty Before Global Warming

By Bjorn Lomborg
Special for National Geographic News
August 29, 2002

With the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development underway in Johannesburg this week, much is being said about sustainability and development. The phrase sustainable development is a curious mix of Western concern for environmental sustainability and the developing world's concern for substantial, economic development.

At these big environmental gatherings it has historically been the First World's priorities that have won out. The challenge in Johannesburg is to finally get the courage to put development ahead of sustainability.

Why does the First World worry so much about sustainability? Because we constantly hear a litany of how the environment is in poor shape. Natural resources are running out. Population is growing, leaving less and less to eat. Species are becoming extinct in vast numbers, and forests are disappearing. The planet's air and water are becoming more polluted. Human activity is, in other words, defiling the Earth, and humanity may end up killing itself.

There is, however, one problem: This litany is not backed up by the evidence. Energy and other natural resources have become more abundant, not less so. More food is now produced per head of the world's population than at any time in history. Fewer people are starving. Species are, it is true, becoming extinct. But only about 0.7 percent of them are expected to disappear in the next 50 years, not the 20 percent to 50 percent that some have predicted. Most forms of environmental pollution look as though they have either been exaggerated, or are transient—associated with the early phases of industrialization. They are best cured not by restricting economic growth, but by accelerating it.

That we in the West are so willing to believe the litany despite the overwhelming evidence pointing in the other direction means that we often make poor prioritization, focusing excessively on sustainability. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the discussion on global warming.

There is no doubt that pumping out carbon dioxide from fossil fuels has increased global temperature. Yet too much debate is fixated on reducing emissions without regard to cost. By agreeing to the 1997 Kyoto climate treaty, Europe has set itself the goal of cutting its carbon emissions more than 30 percent below what they would have been in 2010.

But even with renewable sources of energy taking over, the UN Climate Panel still estimates a temperature increase of four degrees to five degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100. Such a rise is projected to have less impact in the industrialized world than in developing countries, which are predominantly in warmer regions and have fewer resources to cope with the problems of climate change.

Despite our intuition that we need to do something drastic about global warming, economic analyses show that it will be far more expensive to cut carbon dioxide emissions radically, than to pay the costs of adaptation to the increased temperatures. Moreover, all current models show that the Kyoto Protocol will have surprisingly little impact on the climate: Temperature levels projected for 2100 will be postponed for only half a dozen years.

The Economic of the Kyoto Protocol

Yet, the cost of complying with the Kyoto Protocol will be U.S. $150 billion to $350 billion annually (compared to $50 billion in global annual development aid). With global warming hurting primarily Third World countries, we have to ask if the Kyoto treaty is the best way to help them. The answer is no. The cost of meeting the Kyoto treaty for just one year would be enough to solve the biggest problem in the world—we could give clean drinking water and sanitation to every person on the globe. This would save two million lives each year and prevent half a billion people from contracting a severe disease. In fact, for the same amount the Kyoto Protocol would have cost just the U.S. every year, the UN estimates that we could provide every person in the world with access to basic health, education, family planning, and water and sanitation services. Wouldn't this be a better way of serving the world?

We need to focus more on development than on sustainability. Development not only possesses intrinsic value but in the long run it will lead the Third World to become more concerned about the environment. Only when people are rich enough to feed themselves do they worry about the environment and future generations. Focusing more on sustainability can easily result in prioritizing future generations at the expense of current generations, which is a backward way of solving our problems. In contrast, focusing on development has the advantage of both helping people today and creating the foundation for a better tomorrow.

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