Thursday, April 24, 2014
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Wrongheaded in Rio

COPENHAGEN – Tens of thousands of people will soon gather in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Earth Summit. The participants, ranging from weary politicians to enthusiastic campaigners, are supposed to reignite global concern for the environment. Unfortunately, the summit is likely to be a wasted opportunity.

The UN is showcasing the alluring promise of a “green economy,” focused on tackling global warming. In fact, the summit is striking at the wrong target, neglecting the much greater environmental concerns of the vast majority of the world.

Global warming is by no means our main environmental threat. Even if we assumed – unreasonably – that it caused all deaths from floods, droughts, heat waves, and storms, this total would amount to just 0.06% of all deaths in developing countries. In comparison, 13% of all Third World deaths result from water and air pollution.

So, for each person who might die from global warming, about 210 people die from health problems that result from a lack of clean water and sanitation, from breathing smoke generated by burning dirty fuels (such as dried animal dung) indoors, and from breathing polluted air outdoors.

By focusing on measures to prevent global warming, the advanced countries might help to prevent many people from dying. That sounds good until you realize that it means that 210 times as many people in poorer countries might die needlessly as a result – because the resources that could have saved them were spent on windmills, solar panels, biofuels, and other rich-world fixations.

But of course, poor countries’ tangible pollution problems are not trendy, and they do not engage outspoken campaigners, media, and governments the way that global warming can.

Nowhere are the failed priorities better illustrated than in the UN’s official, colorful “Rio+20” leaflet. Here, the UN helpfully provides a layman’s explanation of the summit, along with examples of its envisioned “green economy” in action. We see scary pictures of dry riverbeds (the result of global warming), along with plenty of pretty solutions like wind turbines and solar panels.

The problem is that green energy mostly is still much more expensive, less effective, and more intermittent than the alternatives. Yet, the summit literature claims that it will boost economic growth and eradicate poverty. But seriously, why do well-meaning First Worlders think that the Third World should have energy technologies that are more expensive, feebler, and less reliable than their own?

Without a hint of irony, the leaflet is called “The Future We Want.” But, in a world where a billion people go to bed hungry, and where six million die each year from air and water pollution, most of those in the developing world likely have a very different set of priorities for their future.

The leaflet cheerfully claims that China’s shift “to a low-carbon growth strategy based on the development of renewable energy sources [has] created jobs, income, and revenue.” In fact, over the past 25 years, China has quadrupled its CO2 emissions. While China does produce about half of the world’s solar panels, 98% are exported to reap generous subsidies from rich-world markets. Only 0.005% of China’s energy comes from solar panels. China’s decades-long economic expansion has lifted 600 million people out of poverty, but the enormous pollution that this has entailed does not fit into Rio+20’s green narrative.

Likewise, the brochure explains that some farmers in Uganda have embraced organic farming. Unfortunately, Africa is almost entirely organic now – leading to low yields, hunger, and deforestation. Africa needs to boost its yields, and that means enabling farmers to use modern crops, fertilizers, and pesticides. Producing less with more effort might appeal to well-fed First Worlders, but it is literally starving the poor.

Reading further, the leaflet gushes that France has created 90,000 jobs in the green economy. But the stark reality remains hidden: the average cost of each green job is more than $200,000 per year, which French taxpayers patently cannot afford. And economic models show that France has lost as many or more jobs because of the extra costs of the subsidies.

Adding insult to injury, a beautiful photograph shows electric cars finishing the “Zero Emissions Race” in Geneva. Omitted is the fact that most electricity still comes from burning fossil fuels, so the cars are anything but “zero” emissions. And, more importantly, most of our planet’s inhabitants still dream of owning some form of mechanized transport – which is unlikely to be an electric vehicle with a price tag of $50,000 or more.

In a world plagued by serious problems caused by air and water pollution, this breezy focus on trendy topics and unrealistic solutions is deeply disturbing. A disconnected global elite is flying to Rio to tell the world’s poor to have a solar panel.

Rather than pandering to advanced countries’ obsessions, Rio+20 could do more good for humanity – and the planet – by focusing on the top environmental problems and their simple solutions.

Read more from our "The Road to Rio+20" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedAna Osuna Orozco

    "Modern crops, fertilizers and pesticides" so that they can increase their yields and export them to rich markets and transit to urbanisation and concentration of land ownership and more "efficient" agricultural production? So that Monsanto will own the genetic material they'll need to buy each time so that they will reap those yeilds? Or does "modernization" really benefit the poor? Feed the poor? I am all for questioning First world policy prescriptions- so let's do it all the way, no?

  2. CommentedMark Pitts

    It is inaccurate to say Mr. Lomborg is a climate change denier. From the very beginning he has said that is the one issue on which the environmentalists were correct (although he disagreed with their solutions).

  3. CommentedMark Pitts

    I have spent a considerable amount of time working with poor families in Guatemala, and what Mr. Lomborg says seems absolutely true to me. The poor health of the people there is largely due to dirty water and burning wood for heat and cooking.

    But these mundane problems are not cool and trendy. And so they go unnoticed beside the glitzy items mentioned in the UN brochure.

    For me, it is hard to believe the purveyors of many of those ideas are sincere thinking people.

  4. CommentedLance Cash

    Does he think that a 6 degree temperature rise is justified because we should solve contemporary poverty, while not actually advocating for anything to do about contemporary poverty in this article.

    The only thing he advocates for is not doing anything about climate change, and solving "the top environmental problems and their simple solutions."
    Yet he isn't clear on what these problems actually are, why they are the 'top' problem, and what are their 'simple solutions'.

  5. CommentedErik Bramsen

    @Jimmy Rousseau
    Mr Lomborg is not a denier and never was, which you would've know had you read just a single article by his hand. In every column, he most strenuously put in a sentence or two clarifying his stance, but so effective has been the Denier-campaign waged against him, that trolls like your goodself will trot out that canard at every given opportunity.

    But eloquent and intelligent? Yes, that's why he's on the watermelon hitlist. It's not enough that he subscribes to the AGW dogmas, he must subscribe to the sacraments as well. What good is AGW if the remedy is not a Holy Luddite Revolution but boring old common sense?

  6. CommentedRoberto L.

    While I agree with many of the points of the article regarding different priorities between the developed world and the developing nations, I have to point out that this paragraph is quite wrong when it references the "Zero Emissions Race" in Geneva. These cars are "zero" emissions: having recently moved to Switzerland, I was presented -while signing up my energy contract- with the choice of which source I wanted to use: nuclear, nuclear + renewable resources (default) or just renewable resources.

    Switzerland is run on dams and nuclear power plants, no significant fossil fuel power plants exists in this country.

    http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=energy+production+in+switzerland

  7. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Both in the article and in the following comments are interesting and useful ideas how to treat certain environmental issues, and we can also see the arguments and different claims paralyzing achieving actual practical implementations for decades.
    But all of it still only concerns the superficial symptoms however pressing they are, and ignores the main problem, which is our basic human nature causing all the environmental, and economic, financial, political, educational, social issues, putting together the puzzle of the global crisis.
    As long as we only treat the symptoms (provided we can agree on something) another symptom will break out much more severely, as we have been seeing in recent years, we are running out of fingers we can plug the leaking holes with.
    Sooner than later we will be forced to take a deep breath and start digging deeper and at the end accept that unless we correct ourselves, and step out of our own subjective, self calculating, selfish shells, and start working together selflessly, mutually for the sake of the whole above our own self centered priorities, we have no chance of solving even the smallest problems.
    Global and integral means exactly what it suggests, if we are interconnected and interdependent we have to move together in a synchronized, harmonious manner.

  8. CommentedRoss McLeod

    Jimmy Rosseau's comment is typical of an AGW believer.

    First make sure you get the insult in - ... is a denier!
    Second make scary pronouncement but make sure there is no possibility the audience will be alive to verify or disprove the claim.
    Third the big failing in science - appeal to the consensus.
    Fourth - make sure you do not give any actual evidence, primarily because there isn't any.

    If CO2 is supposed to have these "magical" powers of planet heating why is it that its measured thermal conductivity is only about 60 % of air at 25 degrees C ??

    Do you know what this means ??

    Do you really believe that the measured thermal conductivity is determined experimentally BUT it somehow does not include a measure of radiative conductivity ??

    The properties of CO2 do not match the "backradiation" hypothesis - the radiative power of gases at ambient temperatures do not match the claims of the hypothesis either.

    The energy budget as produced for the IPCC is impossible in my opinion and the whole hypothesis of manmade global warming by a trace gas of less than 0.04% of the atmosphere is fanciful.

    If you consider the solar radiation is capable of heating the moon up to 120 degrees C during the day you must, if you can reason, see that the atmosphere shields us from such extreme heating during the day and you must question the framework of the hypothesis.

  9. Commentedjimmy rousseau

    Mr. Lomborg is one of the most eloquent and intelligent speakers of the whole anthropogenic global warming denier crowd. Christopher Monckton would do well to learn a thing or two from him. Nevertheless it matters little how eloquent and congenial he may be, the modus operandi of the denier crowd is all too evident. First he denied the existence of warming, then he denied that it was caused by humans and that the amount of warming was exaggerated. Now his argument is to suggest that there are more pressing environmental issues, that money spent on reducing CO2 emissions would be better spent on other problems. The reality is there is a reason why scientists, climatologists and environmentalists are more preoccupied with this problem than any other. Even though it's effects are not immediately evident, as are some other forms of pollution, this problem has the potential to totally eclipse all others, and can stick around with a time-scale of centuries.
    So now Mr. Lomborg passes himself off as an environmentalist who only has the interests of the worlds poorest in mind, but those of us who know his past can recognise the animal even if he changes his spots

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