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There is a popular emotional appeal in favour of the environment while positing a trade-off with growth-development comes from the consumption of scarce natural resources that release greenhouse gases and damage the environment for centuries to come; green is clean and economic growth is dirty. But when the same issue is queried as a trade-off between fighting poverty and preserving the environment, the response is not as easy.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that the atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) – have all increased since 1750. In 2011, the concentrations of these greenhouse gases exceeded pre-industrial levels by about 40per cent, 150 per cent, and 20 per cent, respectively. Concentrations of GHGs now substantially exceed the highest concentrations recorded in ice cores during the past 800,000 years.
The mean rates of increase over the past century are unprecedented in the last 22,000 years. Predictions for the 21st century, varying from the alarmist to the optimistic, indicate an unprecedented increase in mean global surface temperatures, melting of glaciers and continental ice shelves, rise in mean sea levels and extreme climate changes. IPCC projections on baseline scenarios without additional mitigation show global mean surface temperatures increasing by between 3.7oC to 4.8oC in 2100 as compared to pre-industrial levels. A 1oC increase in mean surface temperature is projected to cause 5-15per cent reduction in crop yields and 3-10per cent increase in precipitation with resultant flooding risks. Glaciers continue to shrink affecting fresh water resources.
Scientists estimate that of the cumulative anthropogenic emissions of GHGs, two-thirds have been caused by fossil fuels combustion and industrial activity, and the balance due to deforestation and other land-use changes . Evidently, accelerated human activity, primarily led by the development paradigm, of the last two centuries and specifically in the last fifty years, has been the primary cause for GHG emission. The energy intensity of development, the carbon intensity of energy, the total population and land use changes, all led by human activity, together determine GHG accumulation in the environment . Land use changes are, in turn, affected by demands on resources placed by a growing population and the energy intensity of development. More people mean greater GHG emission, all other factors remaining the same. Thereby, it stands to reason that if population numbers stabilise, attempts to mitigate GHG emissions would be more successful.
This empirical argument finds basis in the 2014-Environmental Performance Index Report . The 2014 EPI ranks 178 countries over twenty indicators reflecting national level environmental data across nine categories covering environmental ecosystem vitality and environmental parameters affecting public health. The results show that wealth correlates positively with environment related outcomes though at every level of development, some countries do better than others. The countries with the poorest EPI scores fall in Sub-Saharan Africa, the least developed region globally.
Emerging economies as well as developed nations have shown a reduction in CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement production per unit of GDP over 1990-2012 demonstrating a change in the carbon intensity of energy through adoption of alternate sources of energy, investments in transport infrastructure and technological innovations in use of conventional sources. Renewable energy sources- hydropower, nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal and bio fuels- have increased to supply 19per cent of the global final energy consumption. In 2012, half of the electricity generating capacity added globally came from renewable energy sources.
Reduction in energy intensity, however, has to be structured around local economy dynamics. Brazil, for example, aggressively pursued a policy of promoting bio fuels by blending fossil fuel, its large sugar industry producing ethanol for blending. Countries where the market demand-supply position for sugar was balanced, like India, dithered on the blending mandate to protect the market equilibrium in sugar prices. When the United States of America and some other developed countries pushed for blending mandates, corn prices rose to historic levels in 2007-08. Developing countries are more likely to sacrifice sustainability initiatives when confronted with side-effects in the form of higher food prices that affect the poor.
Scientific innovation for greener technologies requires devotion of resources – both public and private- to what people seek. More importantly, accountable governments are, more often than not, likely to promote equitable development through public policy interventions and investments. The thirst for technological innovation arises from a felt need and the capacity of the economy to invest in research and development. Both factors have their roots in economic growth.
Prosperity makes cleaner and greener surroundings valued by citizens. Financial resources are made available by governments and citizens to promote development of new technologies. Common evidence shows that as growth consolidates, “green capital”, the accumulation of the idea of environmental value, gathers strength.
Governments must be able to hear and respond to public clamour. They must have the strength in their institutions to effectively drive change. What has helped create the clamour in recent times are high oil prices, the world’s dependence on fast-depleting fossil fuels, the information explosion through the internet and the growing realisation that reducing fossil fuel energy intensity is both good economics and green politics.