TCS Daily

Springtime for the Poor

By James K. Glassman - September 2, 2002 12:00 AM

JOHANNESBURG - The second week of the giant United Nations Earth Summit begins today in this booming city, balmy and blooming on the second day of South African spring.

More than 100 world leaders are scheduled to address the 60,000 delegates and their camp followers. And if the bigwigs - who include British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell - take the time to look around, they will find three big stories that have dominated this conference.

The first is the contrast between the excess and opulence of the conference attendees, on the one hand, and the misery and poverty of surrounding South Africans, on the other. That story, first instigated by the British tabloid press, makes delicious reading, and it has had a political punch, leading to a reduction in the size of the U.K. delegation from 100 to 70 and a growing appreciation, even among delegates, that mega-meetings like this one are getting absurd and obscene. Although it's getting a little tired at this point, it's still a story that just won't die.

The second big story is far, far more important. It is that, unlike other huge environmental meetings, Johannesburg has become suffused with the theme that wealth makes health - or, more specifically, that it is economic growth that leads to a cleaner, safer environment.

As a result, this conference has proceeded with something approaching sensibility. The part of the gigantic text that pertains to the Kyoto Protocol, the climate-change agreement that was signed in 1997 but still has not been enacted, states that nations that have ratified Kyoto "strongly urge" nations that have not one so to ratify it in a "timely manner."

Steven Sawyer, the ubiquitous climate director of Greenpeace called this delightfully mealy-mouthed language "a tremendous achievement in this process because it basically doesn't go backwards. It's about the only thing in this text that doesn't."

Negotiators are still talking, but, at this point, the only slightly troublesome part of the text is the deletion of some language that would give the World Trade Organization precedence over decisions made here and in subsequent meetings. (This is no big deal when you consider that many Green activists came here with the idea of establishing a World Environmental Organization, a WEO, to balance and battle the WTO.)

The United States has managed to keep out a section that would commit the world to using "renewable" sources for at least 15 percent of their energy. The U.S. did agree to targets for reducing the number of people around the world without access to basic sanitation - even though American delegates much prefer steps that promote economic development to blather about goals.

But these details of the text are a mere sideshow. The big story is increased acceptance of the idea that the late Indira Gandhi expressed so well: "Poverty is the worst polluter."
Just this weekend, the Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stated, "We must fight poverty through sustainable economic growth and development. The shortest route to a cleaner and sustainable environment is to raise the standards of living in developing countries."

In the past, radical Greens and global bureaucrats have tried to promote a false dichotomy: the concept that nations must strike a balance between economic growth and care for the environment. The term "sustainable development" - the focus of this conference - is a byproduct of that false dichotomy.

But perhaps specifically because this conference is being held in Africa, the notion that what developing nations need first is development - and that environmental progress will follow - has caught on.

For example, earlier this week, Britain's development minister, Claire Short, warned environmentalists against "imposing rules that prevent poor countries from development." Otherwise, people in those countries can justifiably say to developed nations, "You got your development, and now you're setting rules that make sure we will never be able to develop."

Energy is a case in point. It is the key to economic growth, and it carries enormous leverage. A little energy goes a long way toward improving living standards. The physical power of a human alone is about the same as that used to power a 100-watt light bulb. But in Europe and the U.S., per-capita energy use is the equivalent of 200 to 250 light bulbs; in India, just 15 light bulbs. As Bjorn Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist" (Cambridge University Press), puts it, Europeans and Americans have more than 200 "servants" at their disposal thanks to energy, but Indians have just 15.

Going into the summit, radical Greens wanted to force developing nations to use more energy generated through expensive means - using specific kinds of "renewables" like windmill and solar power. But, more and more at this conference, participants are conceding that such strictures will only delay economic growth in developing countries and keep their citizens poor.

And, naturally, people who live in poverty are far more concerned with the day-to-day demands of food, shelter and clothing. Environmental health is a luxury they can afford only after they have achieved these basic needs.

"The priority has to be getting energy access to poor people, no matter what the source," Sawyer conceded in an interview with Ron Bailey of Reason magazine.

The idea is simple: Economic progress leads to environmental progress. With three-quarters of the world's people still poor, the best way to improve the environment is to help make them richer.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development has, quite appropriately, concentrated on such issues as ending trade barriers that keep the agricultural products of developing nations out of Europe and thus impoverish and sicken Africans today - rather than on matters of climate change that may will not affect Africans until deep into this century, if at all.

This weekend's demonstrations in the streets of Johannesburg - while offensive and misguided in many ways (one sign exhorted, "Osama, Bomb Sandton," a reference to the rich suburb where the conference is being held) - concentrated, not on hoary enviro issues but on development.

The link between economic progress and environmental progress is not conjecture. It is fact. Look around. Few, if any, rich countries have environments as bad as the poorest countries. Studies show that the US, Europe and Japan have the best environments while nations like Haiti, China and India have the worst. Thirteen of the 15 worst-polluted cities in the world are in developing Asia.

Over the past decade, academic research has demonstrated the economy-environment link conclusively. In 1995, for example, a paper by Princeton University economists Gene Grossman and Alan Krueger, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, studied four types of environmental degradation - "urban air pollution, the state of the oxygen regime in river basins, fecal contamination of river basins, and contamination of river basins by heavy metals." The authors found "no evidence that environmental quality deteriorates steadily with economic growth. Rather, for most indicators, economic growth brings an initial phase of deterioration followed by a subsequent phase of improvement."

This phenomenon is called a Kuznets Curve: As economies grow, pollution increases, but once per-capita income reaches about $8,000 annually, pollution begins a very sharp decline. Several World Bank studies have come to the same conclusion, and the implications are clear: Policymakers should do all they can to boost economic growth in the developing world, and environmental progress will follow. That is precisely what has happened in countries that have crested the Kuznets Curve, countries like Korea, Mexico and Chile.

This is the powerful idea that is animating the discussion of open-minded delegates here at Johannesburg, and it has the environmental extremists - who have tended to dominate previous conferences - in a snit.

And that brings us to the third big story of the Earth Summit - that it is headed for failure.

"It is hard not to conclude that the multilateral approach to sustainable development, which was sparked in Stockholm and got a head of steam in Rio, is running out of gas in Johannesburg," reported an unhappy editorial on the front page of the daily Eco Equity, published by Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Oxfam International and other more radical Green groups.

The Eco Equity editorial is talking about such multilateral efforts as the Kyoto Protocol, whose effect will be to reduce world economic growth significantly - hurting developing nations far more than developed. Instead, this conference has focused on the issues that were explored and treated sensibly at other recent conclaves - especially Doha and Monterrey.

But Johannesburg is far from a failure. In fact, it appears destined in the next few days for a kind of success. Right from the start, issues of economic growth have dominated. On Tuesday, according to Reuters, some "200 poor farmers and local street traders from nearby shanty townships shouted slogans demanding freer trade" at a demonstration outside the conference center.

The demonstrators carried signs stating, "Profits, Not Poverty." One of the leaders, Barun Mitra, an Indian farmer leading about 30 other farmers from his country, told Reuters, "We want the freedom to grow what we want, when we want, with what technology we want, and without trade-distorting subsidies or tariffs."

Of course, trade is not the only important economic issue. The U.S. announced Thursday a set of public-private partnerships that will help small farmers, will fight diseases like malaria and AIDS and will help spread clean drinking water.

The activists at Eco Equity may be right. Johannesburg could be the conference at which the world writes an epitaph to extravagant, unworkable, and often damaging multilateral agreements and instead concentrates on real action - on bilateral deals to promote economic growth and, more importantly, on the principle itself that a cleaner, healthier environment demands, first, prosperity in parts of the world which, shamefully and unnecessarily, are mired in poverty today.



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