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Being Green, and Helping the Poor

Author: Bruce Stokes
March 1, 2003
National Journal

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From the developing world's point of view, it is the industrialized countries that pollute the most and use up a disproportionate share of the planet's resources, yet it is the poor countries that have to pay the bill.

For example, the industrial economies are responsible for nearly two-thirds of the carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere in the past century, according to a study by the World Resources Institute. The United States alone produces more annual emissions than 151 developing countries combined. The resultant global climate change is a particular threat to developing countries. The low-lying island states of the Pacific and the delta regions of Egypt and Bangladesh are vulnerable to rises in the sea level. The arid, drought-prone savannas of sub-Saharan Africa are endangered by disruptions in their traditional rainfall.

Overall, developing countries are likely to suffer more than the industrial world if the world warms. A longer growing season and lower heating bills could actually add 0.7 percent to the Russian economy, according to estimates by William Nordhaus, a Yale University economist. Yet disruption of the monsoons because of global warming could knock 5 percent off Indian economic output.

Global warming is, of course, a long-term problem. The depletion of the world's ocean fisheries is a more immediate concern. Fish catches have been declining since the late 1980s and are now down about 8 percent from their peak. This overfishing is, in part, driven by roughly $15 billion in annual industrialized-nation government subsidies for new boats and better nets. Too many boats from the rich North are chasing too few fish in the waters of the poor South. In the seas around the Pacific Islands, 89 percent of the tuna are now caught by Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, and American vessels, according to the World Bank. Their use of dragnets and other efficient fishing methods has depleted stocks, robbing poor countries of both a potential food source and an opportunity for future export earnings.

Eco-labeling schemes-devised by rich countries to protect the environment and not the poor-are rapidly becoming de facto market standards in Europe and North America. But they are often difficult for developing-country producers to meet. For example, the German government now requires all retailers to pay for recycling or disposing of packaging materials. To avoid such costs, European fruit and vegetable sellers are increasingly demanding that they receive shipments in reusable plastic crates instead of the wooden crates long used by many developing-country exporters. Crate makers in Africa, Asia, and Latin American have suffered.

The challenge facing rich countries is to address these environmental concerns without harming the poor. As the principal generators of carbon dioxide, for example, industrial countries could do more to limit emissions and to fund research on renewable energy and conservation. In so doing, they must be conscious of the unintended consequences of their efforts. The widely advocated carbon tax, for example, based on the amount of carbon in a fuel, would curb the consumption of carbon-based fuels. But it would also hurt oil exporters such as Mexico, Nigeria, and Venezuela and could raise the cost of many imports for other developing nations.

Fishery subsidies, meanwhile, are currently the subject of negotiation in world trade talks. Reining in government subsidies could cut fishing capacity, help rejuvenate depleted fisheries, and permit fair competition between fishing fleets in the developing world and those in industrialized countries.

The developed world should devise a common methodology to balance the economic risks and health rewards of environmental standards and eco-labeling. Rich countries might best accomplish this by opening up the standards-setting process in Europe and Japan (it's already quite transparent in the United States) and by welcoming developing-world experts into the rule-making so they can point out the effects new regulations might have on the world's poor. In a global commons, both environmental abuse and environmental protection can undermine development and poverty reduction.

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