ed090302: A Needless Tradeoff
The World Summit on Sustainable Development kicked off in
Johannesburg, South Africa, on Aug. 26. More than 100 presidents
and prime ministers are scheduled to attend the week-long
conference, but not President George W. Bush - no doubt to the vast
disappointment of the thousands of non-governmental organizations
looking forward to using the conference as an opportunity to
criticize his policies and advance an international environmental
agenda behind a façade of development.
The Bush administration has been unfairly lambasted for
questioning this agenda and opposing icons of the international
environmental movement. Its policies are consistent with the
classic definition, popularized by the Brundtland Commission in
1987, of sustainable development as "Development that meets the
needs of the present without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their own needs." This general definition
essentially advocates cost-benefit analysis and sound investment of
But this reasonable definition has been perverted to justify
unreasonable regulation designed to constrain economic activity
based on unproven fears of future environmental consequences. The
most imminent, and potentially most costly, example of this is the
Kyoto Protocol on global warming.
The Kyoto Protocol seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of
developed countries below their level in 1990 based on projections
of models predicting an increase in global temperatures between 1.4
and 5.8 degrees Celsius over the next century.
Sounds scary, but more than 17,000 climatologists, meteorologists,
and other experts disagreed with those estimates when they signed
an Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine petition stating,
"There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of
carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or
will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the
Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate."
This statement clearly supports the Bush administration's policy
waiting for further evidence prior to adopting irreversible action
through the Kyoto Protocol.
Costs Without Benefits
Even if human activity is leading to global warming, which is open
to debate, advocates have not proven that the consequences are
severe enough to merit constraining economic growth as would occur
if carbon emissions are restricted or capped.
The estimated costs for this vary, but reputable economic studies
(including those by U.S. Department of Energy, WEFA, ABARE, DRI,
CRA, and Manne/Richels) indicate that U.S. economic growth would be
reduced by 1 to 4 percent annually - annual losses up to $400
billion - as reported by the American Council for Capital
Formation's Center for Policy Research.
Add it up, and the cost for the U.S. economy over the next century
is at least $10 trillion in growth forgone before incorporating the
compounded losses of that forgone growth. Constrained growth in the
United States and in other developed economies under Kyoto would
affect developing economies through lower global economic growth
In return for these severe economic costs, the threat of global
warming would merely be delayed a few years, not eliminated. Why?
Because the greenhouse gas restrictions would only apply to
developed economies, while leaving the developing economies (where
greenhouse gas emissions are increasing most rapidly) without
Ineffective, costly treaties like the Kyoto Protocol belie
statements about pursuing economic growth within a sustainable
framework. The organizers of the Johannesburg summit see economic
growth and environmental protection in a zero sum context. A
question in the summit's Online Global Poll on the Environment
illustrates this bias:
"Which of these statements comes closer to your own point of
• Protection of the environment should be given priority,
even at the risk of curbing economic growth.
• Economic growth should be given priority, even if the
environment suffers to some extent."
This predisposition helps explain how the summit can justify its
radical environmental agenda as necessary for development even
though it imposes grave costs on developed nations and developing
countries alike. In essence, environmental concerns trump
This is a needless trade off. Increased prosperity and
environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive - on the
contrary, economic growth leads to the increased per capita income
necessary to protect the environment. The evidence demonstrates
that countries with higher per capita incomes have higher
environmental standards. As shown in economic analyses by Gene M.
Grossman, Alan B. Krueger, and Jagdish Bhagwati among others,
wealthier societies are more likely to demand and implement greater
environmental protection because they can better afford the costs
of those policies.
A Better Course
In the case of Kyoto, developed country governments would be
better served in combating global warming by encouraging investment
in new technologies that will mitigate future greenhouse gas
emissions and facilitating transfer of those technologies to
developing countries. This would permit growth while addressing
concerns over global warming in a more efficient manner.
The bottom line is that economic growth and development are one
and the same. Greater prosperity allows individuals to value green
spaces for their aesthetic value rather than their potential as
fields for crops or trees for fuel.
All the good will and discussion in Johannesburg cannot overcome
the consequences of the poor economic policy choices made by many
developing country governments over the years. These choices have
kept their people in poverty and consequently undermined their
The resolution of environmental problems lies in promoting
economic policies that encourage growth, not in burdensome
international environmental regulations like those embodied in the
D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International
Regulatory Affairs in the Center for International Trade and
Economics at The Heritage Foundation
Originally appeared in TechCentralStation