Saturday, December 15, 2007

The high human cost of inverted logic - policymakers assert that environmental protection, not environmental degradation, obstructs economic growth.

As world leaders meet in Bali to discuss Earth's rising temperatures, climate change is emerging as the central threat to our world's economic growth. The unprecedented attention to the issue is timely, but the crucial question is what national policy leaders will actually do to confront the underlying causes of climate change.

The root cause of climate change is environmental neglect, and related energy inefficiency accompanying the drive for rapid growth. Sadly, most policymakers and their economic advisers have wrongly held the view that it's environmental protection, not environmental degradation, that obstructs growth. This inverted logic comes at a high human cost.

While the world economy expanded sevenfold over the past century, global population increased from 1.6 to 6.5 billion, the world lost half the tropical forests, and carbon dioxide levels rose to 380 parts per million (from the pre-industrial 280 ppm). A rise in temperature of 0.74 degrees Celsius in the past century is causing sea levels to rise, melting glaciers and destroying biodiversity. Once CO2 levels exceed 450 ppm, the change in temperature could top the pre-industrial era by two degrees Celsius, enough to trigger massive climatic instability.

Aside from the global impact, the local damages of environmental devastation are great too. The losses in health and worker productivity from just particulate air pollution amount to 2-3% of GNP in some Asian countries. Water stress and losses from water pollution pose immediate threats to health and well-being, and such distress is on the rise. Deforestation and soil erosion are compounding the damages of natural disasters such as floods and wind storms - especially for the poorest, most likely to be in harm's way.

Along with this picture of environmental decay, there is the story of growth delivering social gains for the people. Where it has occurred, sustained growth has been the most powerful means to reduce poverty. East Asia may be the most striking example of the gains, where growth averaged more than 8% yearly for the past 25 years, and some 600 million people were lifted out of poverty. Developing countries still have to grow a great deal as their average income is still one-sixth that of rich nations.

So the question is how a country can continue to grow quickly without allowing environmental neglect to derail the process. The remarkable fact is that taking preventive measures to address the environmental concerns is a lot cheaper than waiting for the damage to occur and then trying to take curative actions - whether it's curbing water pollution or putting in adaptive reinforcement of structures in disaster-prone areas.

Here is the full article.