Has Industrialization Diminished the Well-Being of Developing Nations and are Industrialized Countries Responsible?
Guest post by: Indur M. Goklany
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A basic contention of developing countries (DCs) and various UN bureaucracies and multilateral groups during the course of International negotiations on climate change is that industrialized countries (ICs) have a historical responsibility for global warming. This contention underlies much of the justification for insisting not only that industrialized countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions even as developing countries are given a bye on emission reductions, but that they also subsidize clean energy development and adaptation in developing countries. [It is also part of the rationale that industrialized countries should pay reparations for presumed damages from climate change.]
Based on the above contention, the Kyoto Protocol imposes no direct costs on developing countries and holds out the prospect of large amounts of transfer payments from industrialized to developing countries via the Clean Development Mechanism or an Adaptation Fund. Not surprisingly, virtually every developing country has ratified the Protocol and is adamant that these features be retained in any son-of-Kyoto.
For their part, UN and other multilateral agencies favor this approach because lacking any taxing authority or other ready mechanism for raising revenues, they see revenues in helping manage, facilitate or distribute the enormous amounts of money that, in theory, should be available from ICs to fund mitigation and adaptation in the DCs.
However, as Henry Shue, an Oxford ethicist and apparently a strong believer in the notion that ICs have a historical responsibility for global warming, notes, “Calls for historical responsibility in the context of climate change are mainly calls for the acceptance of accountability for the full consequences of industrialization that relied on fossil fuels.” [Emphasis added.] But the fundamental premise behind this notion of historical responsibility is that the full consequences of fossil fuel based economic development — synonymous with industrialization — are negative. But is this premise valid?
In fact, by virtually any objective measure of human well-being — e.g., life expectancy; infant, child and maternal mortality; prevalence of hunger and malnutrition; child labor; job opportunities for women; educational attainment; income — humanity is far better off today that it was before the start of industrialization.
That human well-being has advanced with economic development is clearly true for industrialized countries. The figure below for the U.S., a surrogate for industrialized countries, shows that life expectancy — perhaps the single most important indicator of human well-being — and GDP per capita — the best single measure for material well-being — increased through the 20th century, even as CO2 emissions, population, and material, metals, and organic chemical use increased.
But what about the net effect of economic development on developing countries?
Indeed, human well-being has also advanced for developing countries. Consider, for example, that:
- The proportion of the developing world’s population living in absolute poverty (i.e., living on less than $1.25 per day in 2005 dollars), was halved from 52 percent to 26 percent between 1981 and 2005. Ironically, higher food prices, partly because of the diversion of crops to biofuels in response to climate change policies, helped push 130-155 million people into absolute poverty in 2008. This is equivalent to 2.5–3.0% of the developing world’s population.
- The proportion of the developing world’s population suffering from chronic hunger had declined from around 30-35 percent in 1969-1971 to 16 percent in 2003-2005. It has since increased to 18% —thanks, once again, in part to climate change policies designed to displace fossil fuels with biofuels (see here, p. 10-11). The UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that such policies helped increase the number of people in the developing world suffering from chronic hunger by 75 million in 2007 compared to the 2003-2005 period.
- Life expectancy in developing countries increased from 25-30 years in 1900 to 41 years in the early 1950s to 69 years today.
- Child labor in low income countries declined from 30 to 18 percent between 1960 and 2003.
Such improvements in human well-being in both developing and industrialized countries can be ascribed to the cycle of progress composed of the mutually reinforcing, co-evolving forces of economic growth, technological change and freer trade (see here, pp. 29–33). And fossil fuels have been integral to each facet of this cycle. Without the energy generated by fossil fuels, economic development would be much lower, many of the technologies that we take for granted and have come on line since the dawn of industrialization (e.g., devices that directly or indirectly use electricity or fossil fuels) would have been stillborn, and the current volume of internal and external trade would be impossible to sustain. Even trade in services would be substantially diminished, if not impossible, without energy to generate electricity to power lights, computers, and telecommunications.
In fact, no human activity is possible without energy. Every product we make, move or use requires energy. Even human inactivity cannot be sustained without energy. A human being who is merely lying around needs to replenish his energy just to keep basic bodily functions operating. The amount of energy needed to sustain this is called the basal metabolic rate (BMR). It takes food to replace this energy. Insufficient food, which is defined in terms of the BMR, leads to starvation, stunting, and a host of other physical and medical problems, and eventually death.
Following is a sampling of fossil fuel dependent technologies that have helped advance specific facets of human well-being:
- Hunger. Global food production has never been higher than it is today due to fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and farm machinery. But fertilizers and pesticides are manufactured from fossil fuels, and energy is necessary to run irrigation pumps and machinery. The entire suite of technologies that are called the Green Revolution is based on energy. And in today’s world, willy-nilly, energy for the most part means fossil fuels. Additional CO2 in the atmosphere has most likely also contributed to higher food production. Another factor in keeping a check on food prices and reducing hunger is trade within and between countries which enables food surpluses to be moved to food deficit areas. But it takes fossil fuels to move food around in the quantities and the speed necessary for such trade to be an integral part of the global food system, as it indeed is. Moreover, fossil fuel dependant technologies such as refrigeration, rapid transport, and plastic packaging, ensure that more of the crop that is produced is actually consumed. That is, they increase the overall efficiency of the food production system, which also helps reduce food prices and contain hunger worldwide. See here.
- Health. Having sufficient quantity of food is the first step to a healthy population. It’s not surprising that hunger and high mortality rates go hand in hand. In addition, even the most mundane medical and public health technologies depend on energy, most of which is derived from fossil fuels. Such technologies include heating for sterilization; pumping water from treatment plants to consumers and sewage from consumers to treatment plants; and transporting and storing vaccines, antibiotics, and blood. In addition, energy is necessary to operate a variety of medical equipment (e.g., x-rays, electrophoresis, and centrifuges); or undertake a number of medical procedures. Moreover, economic surpluses generated by greenhouse gas producing activities in the US (and other industrialized countries) have helped create technologies to enable safer drinking water and sanitation; treat diseases such as AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis; and increase life expectancies through vaccinations and improvements in nutrition and hygiene. See here.
- Child Labor. Fossil fuel powered machinery has not only made child labor obsolete in all but the poorest societies, but it allows children to be children and, equally importantly, to be more educated in preparation for a more fulfilling and productive life.
- Equal Opportunity for Women and the Disabled. But for home appliances powered for the most part by electricity, more women would be toiling in the home. Moreover, power tools and machinery allow women, the disabled and the weak to work on many tasks that once would have been reserved, for practical purposes, for able-bodied men.
- Education. Today’s populations are much more educated and productive than previous ones in large part due to the availability of relatively cheap fossil fuel generated electrical lighting. And education is a key factor contributing not only to economic development and technological innovation but also personal fulfillment.
In addition, a substantial share of the income of many developing countries comes directly or indirectly from trade, tourism, developmental aid (to the tune of at least $2.3 trillion over the decades), and remittances ($328 billion in 2008 alone) from industrialized countries. Much of this would have been impossible but for the wealth generated in industrialized countries by fossil fuel powered economic development. This economic development also allowed the US (and other developed countries) to offer humanitarian aid to developing countries in times of famine, drought, earthquakes, floods, cyclones, tsunamis and other disasters. Moreover, such aid would have been virtually impossible to deliver in large quantities or in a timely fashion absent fossil fuel fired transportation. Similarly, it would be impossible to sustain the amount of trade and tourism that occurs today without fossil fuels.
Clearly, fossil fuels have advanced human well-being in both industrialized and developing countries. The claim that the net effect of fossil fuels has been detrimental to either group is unsubstantiated.
Remarkably, virtually all the technologies noted above were conceived, and developed in the industrialized countries, and enabled in large part by the wealth generated from the direct or indirect use of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas generating activities. In fact, because of the diffusion and active transfer of technologies from industrialized to developing countries, the latter are far ahead of today’s industrialized countries at equivalent levels of economic development.
- In 2006, when GDP per capita for low income countries was $1,330 (in 1990 International dollars, adjusted for purchasing power), their life expectancy was 60.4 years. But the US first reached this level in 1921, when its GDP per capita was $5,300. See here (pp. 20-21).
- Even Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s developmental laggard, is today ahead of where the U.S. used to be. In 2006, its per capita GDP was at the same level as the U.S. in 1820 but the U.S. did not reach Sub-Saharan Africa’s current infant mortality level until 97 years later in 1917, and its current life expectancy until 1902. That is, with respect to infant mortality, Sub-Saharan Africa is 92 years ahead of the US’s pace! With respect to life expectancy, it is 104 years ahead.
Thus, empirical data do not support the underlying premise that industrialization of today’s developed countries has caused net harm to developing countries. In fact, a major harm to developing countries seems to have resulted, in part from climate change policies instituted in industrialized countries. As noted above, information from the World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organization suggests that no thanks to climate change policy, two of mankind’s signal achievements of the 20th century, namely, the reduction of poverty and hunger in developing countries, are in danger of being retarded if not reversed. Although not addressed above, a third signal achievement of mankind is the almost-plateauing of human demand for cropland, which is the major source of threats to species and biodiversity. But this too is in danger of being overwhelmed now that climate change policies encourage the cultivation of energy crops.
Had it not been for progress and economic surpluses in industrialized countries fueled for the most part by fossil fuels, what would the developing world’s level of human well-being be today? For example, Bangladesh’s life expectancy has gone up from 35 years in the 1940s to 61 now. Its hunger and malnutrition rates would undoubtedly be far higher as agricultural yields would be lower. It would be hard to even list all the ways in which Bangladesh and other developing countries have benefited.
As noted at Reason on-line:
Who knows, even if one assumes that the purported damages from climate change indeed come to pass —there are good reasons to believe that the IPCC has overestimated the impacts of climate change (see here and here) — that a full accounting of the benefits and costs from industrialization may not reveal that developing countries owe developed countries for a net improvement in their well-being!
To summarize, industrialized countries indeed have a historical responsibility for industrialization. But industrialization has been a net boon to humanity not only for industrialized countries but developing countries as well. The real problem may well not be climate change but ill-considered climate change policies that would use crops for energy production thereby increasing hunger, poverty, and the threat to biodiversity.
Now it may be argued that I am ignoring the future impacts of climate change which may tilt the balance so that industrialization, instead of being a net positive turns into a net negative. But as noted by the Economist, which supports the notion that greenhouse gases should be curbed, projections about the future impact of climate change are “no more than educated guesses”, and this is being charitable (see, for instance, here, here, here, and here). Without belaboring this point any further, a little education can be a dangerous thing.