No growth for you

There's nothing particularly fair about Nair's argument.

Madeleine Bunting discusses the assertions of Chandran Nair, who argues that the world’s poor (specifically those in Asia) should never attempt to attain Western living standards because the result would be environmentally infeasible:

“If Asia continues like the west, the game is over; as people in Asia get richer, they eat further up the food chain. If 500 million Chinese want to eat just one seafood meal a week, it will empty all the seas of Asia. If Asians ate as much chicken as Americans, by 2050 that would amount to 120 billion birds a year instead of today’s 16 billion. To aspire to the western model in Asia is a deadly lie.

Here are some thoughts:

  1. I am solidly with Han Rosling on this one when he says that we really aren’t in any position to start telling people what their per-capita carbon usage should be until they are our peers (either because they are now as rich as we are, or because we’ve reduced our own consumption to match theirs).
  2. Nair’s beliefs strike me as being extremely Malthusian in their assumptions (which characterizes the climate change lobby in general) – these arguments typically read as follows “X million people use Y resources now, so of course Z*X million people are going to use Z*Y resources.” Such arguments ignore huge unknowns about how future technological progress will affect consumption. It’s highly unlikely that by the time billions of Asians are able afford their own iPhone 24 that the environmental impact of that iPhone will be as great as it is now.
  3. The environmental lobby groups have (to my meager knowledge, readers feel free to challenge this) failed to demonstrate that even `normal’ carbon-intensive growth is a bad deal for the average poor person. Most of the areas of the world we expect to see hit hardest by climate change are those which are growing very little, or not at all. Climate change is an externality problem – we have lots of countries not considering the full cost of carbon-led growth. However, we’ve never considered the possibility that, even if we manage to create a system that forces Asian countries to fully internalize that cost, that it still might still make sense for them to choose to grow, grow, grow.
  4. Nair’s arguments that we need might need benevolent autocracies to counteract a consumption-led model makes me feel even more secure using the Soup Nazi for today’s photo.
  5. Your thoughts are, as always, extremely welcome.


White Noise

I'm sorry, were you saying something?

Development work lurches from hot issue to hot issue. Each dominates discourse and practice for a while before gradually fading out. While development agencies are in the grip of one of these hot issues, every document, every policy must somehow be made to relate to them, no matter how inappropriate or unnecessary it is. That’s why you get documents about road building in rural areas which pay lip service to the principles of Good Governance in the introduction and conclusion, though the actual body of the report rightly focuses on the actual practice for planning, funding and building new roads.

In the addled minds of those who write these documents, they are making the issue real by talking about them constantly. They think it shows people that they are taking it seriously, ensuring that ‘every decision involves consideration of the [insert issue here] impact’. Of course, nothing of the sort is true. Rather, by constantly invoking Governance as an issue of concern, even in documents or policies that can have no hope of influencing it, we reduce it to white noise. We constantly hear the word, and even if it once referred to something real and important, we tune it out because it’s been reduced to meaninglessness. And eventually a backlash starts: people complain that all these years of obsession with Governance are achieving nothing, and we’ll move on to the next issue. Never mind that the constant invoking of Governance masks the fact that very little is actually being done to improve it. The incessant white noise makes it feel like it is our sole focus and when the little actual work doesn’t match up to the noise we make about it, it is jettisoned.

This week, I saw the first signs that climate change is going down this path. I was asked to assess a draft PRSP and the comments made in response to it by the local donors, and I was amazed by the prominence climate change was given in the comments. This is the PRSP of a very poor and quite small place. The document has a few problems which the donors have pointed out (and a few that have escaped censure), but reading through it, it never occurred to me that a central issue was that it didn’t plan enough for mitigation of climate change or adaptation to climate change.

I know that climate change is a real threat to the prospects of many developing countries. It’s also something that many developing countries can help combat. But let’s be clear: for it to be tackled properly, it must be tackled at the global level. Individual poor countries, which contribute a miniscule amount to climate change compared to large industrialized countries, are not going to lead the fight. Even if they successfully minimize their contribution to climate change, this will be a drop in the ocean compared to what the big industrial powers can achieve. If they do make sacrifices for this end, and see others ignore the problem or continue to institute half-measures not only will they have a limited effect on climate change, they’ll also suffer in terms of material development. They stand to lose on two dimensions. No, if they are to contribute to the reduction of harmful practices to the environment it must be part of a global strategy to do so.

What’s more, climate change mitigation will also not be a central concern of these countries. This might be short-sighted, but the situation is clear. In many places in the world, the basic services that any society needs are not functioning effectively. The productive capacity of the economy is severely limited: agriculture is low-productivity because lands are not irrigated and land holdings are too small to mechanise, and industry is not competitive or developed enough to provide stable employment to the many unemployed. Yes, the spectre of climate change may make agriculture more difficult, but by far the biggest constraint to their ability to grow crops and produce products is the structure of their agricultural sector and the ability of entrepreneurs to accumulate capital and start large-scale production. These are rightly the focus of their work.

Trying to give climate change an artificially large space in the strategic vision of a country like this is going to fail for two reasons: firstly, no-one who lives, works or governs in these countries will believe it should really be their focus, and so they won’t devote their time and resources to whatever they’ve put their signatures down to. Secondly, the more donors or pressure groups push for it, the more the Government and other players will placate them by issuing more statements and drafting more meaningless paragraphs that ‘recognise the central importance’ of these issues, while at the same time quietly making sure the priority funding and effort goes in other directions. And then, in fifteen years’ time, we’ll look back at all these papers and declare the failure of the climate change agenda, the failure of these policies – because for all the rhetoric they never changed anything.

Climate change is a central concern of international organisations for a good reason. It’s one of the biggest threats to the planet, and we simply cannot just sit around and watch it happen. But this means we cannot fall into the trap of using words as a substitute for action. Getting reference to climate change into a document is not a win. Getting a policy implemented that makes a real difference to it is. And this must happen at the global level first; it requires unity of action. We might have the sway to get poor countries to write about it more, but that should be no salve on a collective conscience that knows those who have the biggest influence remain unmoved.

Having your carbon cake and eating it too

Alex Evans at the Global Dashboard writes about Bono’s recent endorsement the climate change concept of contraction and convergence. In short the idea is this: give countries the equal rights to emit carbon and allow them to trade those rights for cash while slowly reducing the sum total of the rights. As Bono puts it:

One smart suggestion I’ve heard, sort of a riff on cap-and-trade, is that each person has an equal right to pollute and that there might somehow be a way to monetize this. By this accounting, your average Ethiopian can sell her underpolluting ways (people in Ethiopia emit about 0.1 ton of carbon a year) to the average American (about 20 tons a year) and use the proceeds to deal with the effects of climate change (like drought), educate her kids and send them to university. (Trust in capitalism — we’ll find a way.)

Distributing equal rights to carbon emissions is an attractive idea. Its most desirable properties are those that pertain to the efficiency of the resulting allocation: Since countries can trade off their rights to pollute for cash such series of exchanges would, theoretically, end only when improving the lot of one country would make another worse off, given some basic (but not uncontroversial) assumptions about preferences.

Continue reading

Joined at the hip?

I’m sitting here in snowy Copenhagen listening to the BBC World Service. Sir Nicholas Stern, who was being interviewed, made this statement:

The two biggest challenges of the future are solving world poverty and combating climate change, and we can’t accomplish one without the other.

What do you think about this? If global warming got really awful, would those currently in poverty be condemned to stay in poverty (ignoring the small island nations)? Similarly, as it isn’t the bottom billion that are responsible for most of the world’s carbon emissions, I don’t see how the presence of poverty (give that they aren’t really growing that quickly) prevents the rich and industrialising nations of the world from tackling climate change.

If anything, I think the two are more likely to conflict rather than to complement each other, but what do you think?

Transparency and climate change payouts

Publish What You Fund‘s Federico Pirzio-Biroli is concerned that rich countries will divert traditional aid towards financing climate change mitigation in developing countries rather than generating new funds.

The poverty advocacy group ONE has launched a last ditch attempt to stop aid money being ‘double counted’. Their petition will be handed to the Danish host of the conference next week and asks:

1. That existing aid promises are kept.
2. That additional costs borne by people living in poverty caused by climate change are paid for by additional money.
3. That countries are transparent about how much development aid is being reallocated to fighting climate change.

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I’m less worried than Pirzio-Biroli about diverted resources: we’re still recovering from a downturn in global prosperity and aid (like it or not) is pro-cyclical. I’m much more concerned that climate change mitigation funds won’t be used for their intended purpose  Most of the receiving nations have enough trouble implementing the aid they do receive- what are the chances that funds will be used to transform entire countries to better deal with global warming? I think it’s much more likely that all the showboating by the poorest countries (like staging 1.5 hour walk outs, or, as Jon Stewart calls it, “lunch”) is just veiled rent-seeking.

Then again, climate-change funds might be easier to control (and, unfortunately, withdraw) than traditional aid. If you did believe that developing countries are pure in their motives for seeking mitigation funds (or even if you believed that they were at least seeking fungibility for good reasons), then why not just lobby for an extra dose of general budget support, and let them make their own trade-off between investing in mitigation and dealing with the rest of their troubles?

Will climate change really lead to more civil war?

A few weeks ago several researchers from UC Berkley, including the impressive development economist Ted Miguel, published a study connecting a rise in temperature with the incidence and onset of civil war in Sub-Saharan Africa. You can find the paper here.

Last week the Times, the BBC, many other news outlets, dozens of blogs and climate change activists have been reporting the link and touting the paper’s claim that climate change will lead to a “54% increase in armed conflict incidence by 2030.”

I looked over the paper behind the result, and found that, while the study is interesting and well thought out, there are several reasons that the conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.
Continue reading

Democracy and climate change

Again, hat tip to Solarfafrica (a busy climate change tweeter). From an AllAfrica article, a murky statement on embracing democracy to fight climate change:

Some governments allow deforestation in fear of being voted out of power,” Dr Alvin said. He added: “When electing leaders, we should make sure we elect people who can be accountable.”

I think the missing question is “accountable to whom?” If you follow that line of thinking, I doubt you’ll find that the answer to climate change is “more democracy.”

Should growth really be rationed?

Duncan Green, over at his excellent blog, makes a case for rationing growth to allow the poor to grow but keep climate change in check. His three main points are, basically:

  1. You need rather robust growth in poor countries to reduce poverty.
  2. Saving a technological breakthrough, global GDP needs to fall to reduce carbon emissions
  3. There are decreasing returns to happiness, so if we want to maximize global happiness, given some maximum cap on global emissions, richer countries should forgo more growth so that poor ones can grow faster, given the limited (environmental) space that they have.

I’m not convinced, for a number of reasons:

  • The growth of the developed and developing countries are not independent – there is no pot of gold from which either the rich or the poor can draw growth; many poor countries depend on exports to rich (and other developing) countries. This is one of main channels through which the financial crisis has negatively impacted developing countries: reduced demands for their goods and services. Slower growth from richer countries also means less aid and less remittances.
  • Most people accept that there are diminishing returns to utility or happiness (let’s not get into how related those two are), but I think the jury is still out on happiness and growth. For one, happiness surveys usually give a cardinal (or very basic ordinal) scale for responding, a scale which is usually bounded about (I am super happy!). The top and bottom-coding of the responses are always going to bias the results (there are some econometric detours to get around these issues). This isn’t completely the fault of the surveys (can you imagine rating how happy you are on a scale of 0 to 10,000?)
  • Also, most of these surveys usually looked at levels of income, rather than growth or loss in income. There’s also issues of the reference point from which gains or losses in income should be judged (a heavy dose of reading into prospect theory is always helpful). Also related to prospect theory is the concept of loss aversion, that people tend suffer more from losses than from gains. I think the endowment effect likely extends to future expectations of income as well as regular income: we expect our lives and society to be improving in marginal ways our entire life, and when we fall short of those expectations we’ll be less happy.
  • Mixing the arguments for global social justice and for internalising carbon emission externalities might lead to the conflation and subsequent dilution of the two. Each country should face incentives which reflect their relative contribution to the global public good of “natural temperature.” Large per-capita polluters should be internalising the cost of their actions imposed on developing countries, where the welfare losses from a rise in temperatures is potentially much greater. Following this style of argument leads us roughly to the same sort of conclusions: the developed world must have sharper checks on their emissions (and likely growth). Note that this is a basic argument of efficiency, not of social justice.

Still, it’s good that we’re finally owning up to the fact that growth and adapting for climate change are linked, especially for poor countries.

A modest proposal for climate change and immigration


Finding resources in a post-global warming Africa will be even more difficult

There is a general consensus that, however severe the eventual impact will be, it is much of the developing world that stands to lose the most from climate change. Increasing temperatures result in more unpredictable and volatile weather as well as greater levels of desertification and disease. Many believe that Africans will be the worst sufferers, despite the fact that they contribute the least to global emissions.

I am currently not optimistic about suggestions that we should pay developing countries to adapt to their worsened environments or to transition their economies into ones that are less carbon-intensive (read: slower-growing). When it comes to adaptation funds, given the extremely low level of government capacity in some of these countries and the general lack of aid effectiveness,what are the chances that these transfers will actually be used for their intended purpose? It’s far more likely that the funds will just act as a payout: reparations for making the lives of the poor worse off. Chris Berg makes a compelling case against cash-for-climate in this article:

Climate aid is just another illustration of what the economist William Easterly calls development paternalism: a belief well-paid international experts, equipped with enough power and resources, should take the third world’s destiny under their benevolent wings.

When I started a post in Malawi several years ago, I spent my first day on a long drive from the south of the country to the capital, Lilongwe. I had arrived in the middle of Malawi’s dry season, when the terrain is orange, dusty and sparsely vegetated. This was my first developing country experience and, overwhelmed by this barren landscape, my immediate thoughts were: this place is a hell-hole that will never be developed, what we need to do is fly in helicopters and move everyone to a place they can live a decent life.

It wasn’t long before I was laughing at my brash, knee-jerk reaction but that isn’t to say that the policy prescription was completely crazy. Many sub-Saharan countries like Malawi are facing both internal and external climate pressures: depleted soil, extreme deforestation, volatile rainfall, and now the looming threat of rising temperatures. In some of the worst-hit, least hospitable locations, is it really reasonable that people must be stuck in such environments, just because they were unlucky enough to be born there?

Continue reading

Meet the ministers

So a Brit, a Frenchman and three Scandinavians walk into a bar...

So a Brit, a Frenchman and three Scandinavians walk into a bar...

So I’m currently in Copenhagen and today was lucky enough to grab a seat at a brief talk by the foreign ministers of the UK, France, Sweden, Finland and Denmark on the upcoming climate change conference this December.

It was fun to see some official chatter on the importance of tackling climate change (although nothing new was said).

I was less impressed with the way the ministers repeatedly linked the fight against climate change with the one against global poverty. This is not totally absurd: climate change will almost certainty make the lives of the world’s poor more difficult, especially those that are heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture, or those unfortunate enough to be living on small islands.

That said, it’s my impression that attempts to sharply curb emissions in developing countries can only slow short-term growth (even if we set the world on a larger long-term growth rate by reducing the impact of the crisis). These countries won’t be able to take advantage of the cheap, carbon-intensive methods the rest of us used to get to our comfortable levels of development. China, who to date has pulled more people out of poverty than any other country in the world, will have to slow down its growth. That means less people exiting poverty every year.

It’s not surprising that both China and India are less-than-enthusiastic about signing on (although Duncan Green, one of the few development bloggers actively covering the climate change agenda, has just noted that China might be making some sort of a deal, we’ll see how effective it will really be).

Sustainable development is invariably slower development.  It’s still a good thing in the long run, but we need to own up to the world’s poor that in order to really make a dent in climate change, they will have to be poor a little longer.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Michael Spence does a much better job of discussing this issue here.