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".

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