Wednesday, September 3, 2014
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The Environment of Poverty

COPENHAGEN – Despite gains in life expectancy, expanded access to education, and lower rates of poverty and hunger, the world has a long way to go to improve the quality of people’s lives. Almost a billion people still go to bed hungry, 1.2 billion live in extreme poverty, 2.6 billion lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation, and almost three billion burn harmful materials inside their homes to keep warm.

Each year, ten million people die from infectious diseases like malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis, along with pneumonia and diarrhea. Lack of water and sanitation is estimated to cause at least 300,000 deaths each year. Malnourishment claims at least 1.4 million children’s lives.

Poverty is one of the main killers. It is why children do not receive proper nutrition and live in neighborhoods with unclean water and inadequate sanitation. And it is why an entirely preventable disease like malaria kills 600,000 people each year; many are too poor to buy drugs and bed nets, while governments are often too poor to eradicate the mosquitos that carry the disease or contain and treat outbreaks when they occurs.

But some of the most lethal problems are environmental. According to the World Health Organization, about seven million deaths each year are caused by air pollution, with the majority a result of burning twigs and dung inside. Previous generations’ use of lead in paints and gasoline is estimated to cause almost 700,000 deaths annually. Ground-level ozone pollution kills more than 150,000 people per year, while global warming causes another 141,000 deaths. Naturally occurring radioactive radon that builds up inside homes kills about 100,000 people every year.

Here, too, poverty plays a disproportionate role. No one lights a fire every night inside their house for fun; they do so because they lack the electricity needed to stay warm and to cook. While outdoor air pollution is partly caused by incipient industrialization, this represents a temporary tradeoff for the poor – escaping hunger, infectious disease, and indoor air pollution to be better able to afford food, health care, and education. When countries become sufficiently rich, they can afford cleaner technology and begin to enact environmental legislation to reduce outdoor air pollution, as we now see in Mexico City and Santiago, Chile.

One of the best anti-poverty tools is trade. China has lifted 680 million people out of poverty over the past three decades through a strategy of rapid integration into the global economy. Extending free trade, especially for agriculture, throughout the developing world is likely the single most important anti-poverty measure that policymakers could implement this decade.

But it is also encouraging that the world is spending more money to help the world’s poor, with development aid almost doubling in real terms over the past 15 years. This has boosted resources to help people suffering from malaria, HIV, malnutrition, and diarrhea.

And, though the data are somewhat inconsistent, it is clear that the world is spending more on the environment. Aid for environmental projects has increased from about 5% of measured bilateral aid in 1980 to almost 30% today, bringing the annual total to about $25 billion.

That sounds great. The world can increasingly focus aid on the main environmental problems – indoor and outdoor air pollution, along with lead and ozone pollution – that cause almost all environment-related deaths.

Unfortunately, that is not happening. Almost all environmental aid – about $21.5 billion, according to the OECD – is spent on climate change.

There is no doubt that global warming is a problem that we should tackle smartly (though our track record so far has not been encouraging). But doing so requires cheap green energy, especially in the developed world, not spending aid money to reduce developing countries’ emissions of greenhouse gases like CO₂.

Indeed, there is something fundamentally immoral about the way we set our priorities. The OECD estimates that the world spends at least $11 billion of total development money just to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. A large part of this is through renewable power like wind, hydro, and solar. For example, Japan recently granted $300 million of its development aid to subsidize solar and wind power in India.

If all $11 billion were spent on solar and wind in the same proportion as current global spending, global CO₂ emissions would fall by about 50 million tons each year. Run on a standard climate model, this would reduce temperatures so trivially – about 0.00002oC in the year 2100 – that it is the equivalent of postponing global warming by the end of the century by a bit more than seven hours.

Of course, climate campaigners might point out that the solar panels and wind turbines will give electricity – albeit intermittently – to about 22 million people. But if that same money were used for gas electrification, we could lift almost 100 million people out of darkness and poverty.

Moreover, that $11 billion could be used to address even more pressing issues. Calculations from the Copenhagen Consensus show that it could save almost three million lives each year if directed toward preventing malaria and tuberculosis, and increasing childhood immunization.

It could also be used to increase agricultural productivity, saving 200 million from starvation in the long run, while ameliorating natural disasters through early-warning systems. And there would be money left over to help develop an HIV vaccine, deliver drugs to treat heart attacks, provide a Hepatitis B vaccine to the developing world, and prevent 31 million children from starving each year.

Is it really better to postpone global warming by seven hours? Even if we continue spending $11 billion to avoid an increase in greenhouse gases for a hundred years, we would postpone global warming by less than one month by the end of the century – an achievement with no practical impact for anyone on the planet.

Why does the world consciously choose to help so ineffectively? Could it be that environmental aid is not primarily about helping the world, but about making us feel better about ourselves?

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  1. CommentedJ C

    Having worked in the field of sustainable investing in the past that I am glad to be now out of, I find the relative silence of reactions here refreshing. You must have clearly struck a nerve Mr. Lomborg, thank you for succinctly describing the developing world's views on climate change, I am a believer in climate change but do not agree with the oECD, UN, or Western POVs on course of action that place additional burden in already impoverished nations.

    Like any economic shock, the rich must be able to absorb the shock and demonstrate scalability of new solutions, rather than these people being used as guinea pigs. This means industrialized countries historically responsible for pollution must take on the burden, the environment cannot be a negotiating tool.

    Sadly, the reality I saw with my own eyes is that US "environmentalists" are ready to force down their agenda without any due concern for developing nations by scaring people about the end of the planet. Fortunately (or unfortunately), most marginalized of the world are so disconnected from this conversation that such threats won't make an ounce of difference. It's ultimately a shame that action on climate change follows the same old patterns of North/South divide and that leadership is lacking. Europe valiantly tried only to scale back recently. If there was another major power that was involved in this process, could the end result have been different?

    My bosses were right to warn me about you, you are a rebel amongst those whose vision lies locally and not globally. Glad to have found this article, and hilarious that you are being framed as a right-winger. A gay, vegetarian conservative? Considering how much I'd disagree with so-called liberals on climate change, I'd gladly welcome a "conservative" like you.

  2. CommentedAlasdair MacLean

    The effectiveness of development spend to reduce poverty is a legitimate area of debate. The point of the post is that the development money spent on renewables is a less effective way to cut poverty. Development is not about renewables but cutting poverty. So a significant part of the development budget has been diverted from cutting poverty effectively. It follows that the main thing is no longer poverty reduction but poverty reduction only if it is environmental. This has shifted the whole emphasis away from where it should be - poverty reduction.
    A point about China and the success there in poverty reduction is its development model works whereas the development models of the development world are not so successful. The point is gather up all the development money and give it to China as sub-contractors to reduce poverty in the rest of the developing world. They do get the job done.
    It is a pleasure to read such critical analysis of the tendency of the environmental movement to lengthen the time of the poverty of the bottom billion.

  3. CommentedKen Presting

    This argument shows the typical bait-and-switch logic of right wing authors who pretend to be concerned for the welfare of the poor. It is also seen in arguments for charter schools, and privatization of social services. In fact these authors are focused exclusively on the revenues of their wealthy supporters.

    The problem here is that the poorest populations in underdeveloped countries would have no access to electricity in any form, whether it is generated by gas, coal, or renewable sources. These populations live in squalid shantytowns with no infrastructure at all - no sewers, no water, no transit. And above all, no electric wiring. How could they substitute electric cooking for burning dung if they have no wires?

    It is discussed in other sections of this website whether development in any specific country goes to benefit the poorest, or primarily to benefit those already privileged. But to praise the example of China's development in this section on Environment and Sustainability is surely to invite ridicule. Few authors with genuine concern for the environment would hold up China as a positive example.

    If any other readers happens by here, we can take some solace that it seems Mr. Lomborg is finding a reduced audience. His work is a distraction from informed arguments.

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