Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is Sustainable Development Dead?

In global warming, their is no longer really any debate about whether it is occurring. However, there is a debate about whether developing countries should shoulder some of the burden. I wrote about that debate here.

But I think the simple fact that the debate is occurring to be important. The UN defines sustainable development as "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Developing countries argue that they need to "catch up" with the developed world. But this does not mean that they should build huge coal-fired power plants which pump out tons of pollution and CO2. This leads me to ask the question "Is Sustainable Development Dead?".

China and India both have very high economic growth rates. But China has very serious environmental problems (as the government itself has admitted). Indeed the air pollution is so bad, there has been threats of moving the Olympics. Just last week there was the reported that a record amount of sewage and industrial wastewater was dumped into the Yangtze river. And, of course, it has the Three Gorges Dam, an ecological and social disaster.

Much is made of India'a development, yet it has more people in poverty than all African countries combined! It has made many major dams projects recently, when everybody says that smaller scale dams are much better solutions.

The IMF and World Bank continue to pump out reports of how good the world economy is, simply based on the criteria of growth rates. Meanwhile, the World Bank and other development banks continue to support projects which have serious environmental effects.

From my own experience living and working in Asia, so-called technology transfer usually involves transfer of not the most efficient and non-polluting technology, but the cheapest technology. This is usually done because the companies are taking the advantage of poorer environmental standards and/or enforcement in the developing country. It must be remembered that direct foreign investment is much, much larger that foreign aid.

All of this is going on while the UN report on the current status of the Millenium Development Goals in Africa shows there is very poor results on most of the Millenium Goals.

Is sustainable development dead? No, but it is dying. We must do two things: increase the importance of the environment (and other social issues) into economic decisions and get away from using economic growth as the indicator of development.

UPDATE (30/11): In a new report that claims that one-fifth of carbon trading schemes may be not valid, the WWF has said "Promoting sustainable development... seems to have been largely forgotten by project developers, verifiers, and the CDM [Clean Development Mechanism] Executive Board".

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Oil: Nigeria and beyond

Every few months I here something about the oil industry in Nigeria. It is a disaster in both the figurative and literal sense.

One major source of carbon dioxide emissions that can be reduced almost completely is flaring - burning off of oil that cannot be refined and the gas associated with the oil (See here). Remarkably, one-third of all Nigeria's oil is flared. This is almost completely due to lack of capacity in the oil industry.

Now Nigeria is a poor country (despite being the fifth largest oil producer, but that is another story), so not having capital to build its oil infrastructure would be understandable. However, the actual case is that the oil refining industry in Nigeria is controlled by large multinational oil companies - most notably Royal Dutch Shell - and they do have the capital. These companies say they continue to flare because the Nigerian government did not give them the funding.

There are some very important issues here. First, these companies make huge profits, yet they need money from the Nigeria government? Second, they do not get money from the US or British governments to not flare gas, yet these countries are much richer than Nigeria. Third environmental regulators in the US or Europe would never allow this much gas to flared, but the companies can do it in countries such as Nigeria because they have lower standards, if any.

What is it about oil companies? As mentioned in my previous post, US companies complain about proposed greenhouse emission standards reducing capacity, yet they have not built a new refinery in 20 years. And now there making the same claim about new sulfur emission standards.

The oil companies want to claim they are "green", showing ads on TV with lush forests saying how they take care to not harm the environment, and then go and fight all environmental standards. In doing so they will use any excuse - there not enough subsidy, it will cause us to cut back on infrastructure, there is no global warming.

Why do they not come out and tell the truth. It will hurt their profit margin.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Everybody But Me

Why is it that industries always seem to have an "everybody-but-me" attitude toward the environment?

The American petroleum refining industry recently complained that they may have to reduce their refining capacity if emission cuts in greenhouse gases would be imposed on them. They claim that the extra costs to reduce emissions would make it so they cannot spend on increasing their capacity, even though they have not built a new refinery in 20 years!

The automobile industry, while claiming to be working on technology such as hydrogen fuel, are opposed to any increase in fuel efficiency requirements.

It should be remembered that both of these industries, especially the American Petroleum Institute (API), were behind attempts to destroy the claims about global warming.

The aviation industry continues to support their exemption from the trading emissions scheme despite being one of largest emitters (and emitting high in the atmosphere).

The point with all three of these industries is they each seem to think that they are somewhat special and therefore should not have to be subject to regulations, etc. Of course, this is not only true of global warming, but many environmental issues. I remember when lead was purposed to be removed from gasoline, the petroleum industry claimed lead was necessary for car performance.

This all goes to show that the talk of social responsibility is a piece of bullshit.