By Andrew Chambers, The Guardian
It is not acceptable to use climate change as an excuse to limit growth in poor countries as the west’s carbon emissions rise.
Cooling towers of a coal-fired power plant in Beijing. South Africa has been criticised for its plans to build a similar power station. Photograph: Alexander F. Yuan/AP
Last Thursday the World Bank approved a £2.4bn loan to build a huge new coal-fired power station in South Africa. The issue has exposed the rift between two central international goals – alleviating poverty and preventing global warming. South African ministers claimed that the project was essential for their country’s development, while a concerted environmental campaign lobbied international governments to block the scheme. Amid concerns about global warming, this question of development versus environment may become one of the most contentious international issues over the next few years.
Since the 1970s the green movement has acquired ever-greater prominence in international development. In the last decade, global warming concerns have refocused the emphasis of poverty reduction strategies away from development and towards the environment. This is portrayed as a win-win situation – where the interests of the local people are perfectly aligned with the interests of environmental campaigners. Sustainable technologies like wind turbines and solar panels improve the lot of the recipients while keeping their carbon emissions to a minimum. However, this approach has been criticised as a form of eco-imperialism – because western carbon considerations remain a limiting factor on developing world progress.
The Working Group on Climate Change and Development is a network of more than 20 NGOs including WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. Founded in 2004, its “central message is that solving poverty and tackling climate change are intimately linked and equally vital, not either/ors”.
The group’s most recent report lists the overarching challenges as (1) how to stop and reverse further climate change, (2) how to live with the degree of climate change that cannot be stopped and (3) how to design a new model for human progress and development that is climate-friendly. The makes fascinating reading – and is illuminating as to the ideological backdrop to development policy.
These environmental groups, while spanning quite a large spectrum, tend to demonstrate an affinity with the pro-rural socialist left. The report describes climate change as not just a threat but also an “opportunity” to re-think the entire global system. It challenges western notions of development and growth and, most starkly, concludes that “mere reform within the current global economic system will be insufficient” to tackle poverty in a carbon constrained future. Indeed, members of these groups often seem to embrace rural village life as representing a pre-industrial idyll which should be preserved.
Such romantic ideology therefore seeks to largely maintain the status quo – where the African poor are kept “traditional” and “indigenous”. It’s hard to disagree with Lord May, former president of the Royal Society in his observation that “much of the green movement isn’t a green movement at all, it’s political”.
With poverty redefined in terms of the environment and infused with pro-rural socialism, large-scale projects to industrialise or modernise are not the priority – indeed, western-style development and modernisation are seen as part of the problem. Instead there is a self-limiting bottom-up approach which subsidises underdevelopment not as a transitionary phase but as an end goal.
To effectively sideline the development strategy that every western country has undertaken in raising living standards is remarkable. Indeed, while India and China have lifted at least 125m people out of slum poverty since 1990, over the same period 46 countries have actually got poorer – the large majority of them African states.
It would be too simplistic to prescribe the industrialisation and modernisation agenda pursued by India and China as a panacea for the problems of sub-Saharan Africa, and the Indian and Chinese policies have not been without adverse consequences. Nevertheless, it is a staggering achievement which demonstrates that poverty alleviation should be pursued through a developmental agenda.
The truth is that African poverty is not a result of global warming. It is likely that the poor will be disproportionately affected by global changes in temperature – but this is not a reason to limit development. It is development which will allow countries to better cope with the consequences of a changing climate. For example, the Netherlands is better prepared to build dams to protect its coastline from rising sea levels than Bangladesh. Those that will be hardest hit by global changes to temperature will be those who are most exposed to the vagaries of the environment now – the rural poor.
Environmental policies that seek to reinforce the rural status quo as a means of limiting carbon emissions may be of benefit to the developed world, but they are detrimental to the long-term ability of the poor to cope with climate change. The planned South African power plant at Limpopo exposes the collision between these different policy aims. With the country going to the World Bank for a £2.4bn loan, international governments have been forced to weigh up developmental advantage versus environmental damage.
South Africa suffers major power shortages and insists that a new plant is essential to the country’s economic progress. Environmentalists are horrified that the plant will emit 25m tonnes of carbon per annum, and point out that much of the new electricity will be used by heavy industry. Despite a concerted lobbying campaign from environmental groups, the loan was approved on Thursday – albeit with abstentions from Britain, America and the Netherlands. A US treasury spokesman explained that the abstention was due to an “incompatibility with the World Bank’s commitment to be a leader in climate change mitigation and adaption”. Considering that the World Bank’s first affirmed purpose is to alleviate poverty, we can see how pervasive the reframing of poverty in terms of environment has become.
It is up to the developed world to produce the technologies for cleaner energy and implement policies to significantly reduce carbon emissions. It is not acceptable to use global warming as a way of limiting growth in poor African countries when our own climate emissions continue to rise.
Environmental movements certainly have a role to play in highlighting ecological degradation and its impact on local people, and in some cases the interests of protecting the environment will be perfectly aligned with the needs of the local community. However, it is unacceptable for poverty reduction in the developing world to become a staging post for ideological battles lost elsewhere. We should embrace whatever methods provide the best outcome in alleviating poverty – whether that be new roads or airports, power stations or renewables. To do otherwise is to be guilty of the worst kind of eco-imperialism – where the poor are held back for the benefit of the rich.