TCS Daily

The Development Consensus

By Alan Oxley - June 7, 2004 12:00 AM

Zealots regularly make the mistake of assuming that others accept the rightness of their cause. That's why Greens run into brick walls, like developing countries. The recent "Copenhagen Consensus" of a group of the world's leading economists that global warming is at the bottom of the list of what needs to be done to improve global welfare clearly shows why.

In 1992, Europe's Greens launched the Rio Summit in the United Nations to make the environment the leading global issue. Their first mistake was to take the United Nations at face value. It is a cynical place. Governments commit to human rights while denying them at home, call for peace while waging war, support free trade while practicing protection and abjure corruption while living corruptly. The UN is a good place for pious positioning.

Developing countries over time have burnished their own positioning. They have shaped well-worn positions that relieve them of obligations. A standard recitation is 'Lack of aid is the cause of underdevelopment' (or 'the colonial past' if you are African). They will support any proposition provide it restates these mantras and establishes yet another fund to provide more aid or technology. The Greens evidently didn't realize it is a game.

At Rio, developing countries played it. They would support a UN summit on environment provided it was coupled to development. So it was styled the "UN Conference on Environment and Development" (UNCED). They agreed environment could become a leading issue in the UN provided that rich countries took full responsibility for degradation of the environment, that developing countries would be free of commitments to improve it, and that rich countries would supply money and technology.

When the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted at the Rio Summit, it was basically on those terms. The game was replayed when the Kyoto Protocol was developed several years later. It requires only rich countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Developing countries will only take action if they feel like it and provided they receive money and technology.

The second mistake of the European Greens was to believe that developing countries meant more than what they said. Environment Ministers from the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Germany still make pathetic speeches claiming that developing countries will follow suit if rich countries set the example and cut greenhouse gases. Developing countries have consistently refused to accept any commitments.

European Environment Ministers were confronted with this hard fact at the second UN Environment and Development Summit held ten years after Rio in Johannesburg. They suggested it was time developing countries accept commitments to cut greenhouse gases. They were bluntly rebuffed. They tried at the meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in Bonn as well with the same result.

Developing countries have always seen the environment in a different light. Western Greens focus on climate change, toxic metals, chemical contamination, forests, dams, mining, protection of biodiversity and endangered species. Nearly 10 years ago, The World Bank's annual World Development Report reviewed the environmental priorities among developing countries. The first was making water potable, second was clean air, then removal of solid waste and after that urban planning.

Danish statistician and author of the global best-seller "The Skeptical Environmentalist" Bjorn Lomborg got a group of the world's leading economists together last month in Copenhagen to answer the question: "If you had $50 billion to spend, what would best improve global welfare, particularly in developing countries?" They reviewed the big problems on the UN's agenda: civil conflict, climate change, communicable diseases, education, financial stability, governance, hunger and malnutrition, migration, trade reform, water and sanitation.

In what they termed the "Copenhagen Consensus," their answer was the money spent on control of HIV/Aids, improvement of nutrition, trade liberalization, control of malaria, development of new agricultural technology and new water technology would provide the greatest benefit. Measures to abate climate change were rated last.

Developing countries know this and will not shift. Europe's Green have committed the EU to go ahead and cut greenhouse gas emissions on their own. Economic and energy ministries in Europe are starting to calculate the cost of this to Europe. They may well be the next brick wall.

Alan Oxley is Australia's former Ambassador to the GATT.


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