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Global South countries are right in giving priority to economic development over environmental protection' Do you agree with this statement

Introduction

In the 21st century, there has been an increasing emphasis on environmental protection, which has often been framed within a discourse that links environmental degradation with industrial development. This discourse is based on the increasing evidence and documentation of the link between environmental harm and rapid economic development and industrial growth, with the latter having significant costs for environment and ecology in the form of climate change, deforestation, and pollution (O'Connor, 1999). The concern for the environment’s protection and the argument for the reduction of environmental harm is based on the understanding of how environmental harm can have significant repercussions for the weather, natural resources, and animal life (O'Connor, 1999). It is argued that because there is an element of ecological fragility in the world, it is incumbent on the international community to devise methods for the protection of environment (Gunningham, 2009). There are a number of international arrangements that have been devised to achieve the aforesaid goal, but one of the crucial issues and debates in the international discourse on environmental protection centres on the distinction to be drawn between the responsibilities of the developed and developing countries under such international arrangements given that environmental protection can also have an economic cost that affects developing countries more adversely since they are yet to develop their economies in comparison with the developed countries. This essay considers whether it would be appropriate to argue that the Global South, or the developing countries of the world, would be correct in prioritising economic development over environmental protection. Due to some important reasons discussed in this essay, it is argued that such a prioritisation of economic goals over environmental protection would not be advisable and can have steep economic costs for the developing countries themselves as well as a high environmental cost for the world.

Arguments against allowing developing countries to prioritise economy over environment

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Equity can include environmental protection through sustainable development

The concept of equity is an important consideration for developing countries in the context of a discourse on environmental protection, because it can be argued that environmental protection cannot be allowed to become the primary consideration for developing countries when the countries are grappling with food shortages, poverty and low per capita income (Klinsky, et al., 2017). It can be argued that if the developing countries only prioritise environmental protection, then the possible consequence can be a trade-off between climate change and equity; at the same time, equity need not necessarily preclude climate change considerations and both environmental protection and economic development can be prioritised by the countries to evolve a more holistic and balanced approach (Klinsky, et al., 2017). Equity necessarily involves an element of bargain with environmental protection because an emphasis on equity leads to a shift from environmental to economic concerns (Klinsky, et al., 2017). Therefore, at the outset, it would be pertinent to engage with the concept of trade-offs, which is necessarily involved in the discourse on environmental protection and economic development. It is also pertinent to note that the concept of ‘sustainable development’ may provide an answer to such trade-offs because the concept involves a balanced approach to the dilemma on whether environmental protection should be prioritised over economic development or vice versa.

The Brundtland Report described the concept of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED , 1987, p. 43). The idea of sustainable development is premised as a response to aligning the needs of development with the needs of protecting the environment. This concept can be useful for providing a balanced approach to developmental needs and environmental needs for developing countries and can be an answer to the trade-off that is otherwise thought to be central to any discussion on link between development and environment. To put it in a different way, developing countries can still protect their equity while also prioritising environmental protection if they take the approach of sustainable development.

Sustainability involves processes of productivity where practices allow replacement of resources being used with resources of equal or greater value and at the same time ensuring that there is no degradation of the natural biotic systems (Lynn & Eda, 2014). Sustainable development goals were clearly identified in the 1972 Stockholm Conference and adopted in the Stockholm Declaration and these goals are centred in the idea that development should not come at a high cost for the environment (Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, 1972). The central idea is that the development of the present time should not come at the expense of the future generations so that “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” would be considered to be sustainable development (WCED , 1987). This creates a regulatory construct with the goal to compensate for the losses of exhaustible resources with investments in technology and knowledge for mitigating losses or environmental harm (Aseeva, 2018).

With regard to developing countries, an argument has been made that the regulatory construct of sustainable development presents a problem in that developing countries may not have the resources for technology and knowledge creation (Aseeva, 2018). Such problems can be addressed through collective measures of the international community so that the task of achieving sustainable development does not become too burdensome. However, the problems that may be presented in no way lend justice to an argument that development must be absolutely prioritised over environment and ecology. It may also be mentioned that sustainable development goals also include economic goals like eradication of poverty and hunger, which means that the absence of capacities to build up mitigating technologies should not mean that developing countries forego their economic development. Indeed, what can be argued here is that instead of absolutely prioritising economy over environment, the concept of sustainable development may provide a framework within which developing countries are able to continue their trajectory for economic development but also while balancing this with the peculiar needs of environmental protection in their own territories. It cannot be denied that states have the responsibility to enhance economic development for its communities and citizenry and for this purpose, they have to exploit natural resources and also allow activities of industry that can lead to pollution (Nnabue, 2011). However, developing states can have a balanced approach to the economy-environment discourse and can use the sustainable development framework to develop this approach so that they do not compromise on their development needs while also being able to have a more responsible approach to environmental protection.

Moral hazard of allowing developing countries to prioritise economy over environment

It is also important to consider the problem of the ‘moral hazard’, which can be defined as the existence of a risk due to the behaviour of the entity undertaking such risk based on the belief that risk is be borne by the risk bearing liability of another party (Rowell & Connelly, 2012). Moral hazard has been used “to describe loss-increasing behaviour that arises under insurance” (Rowell & Connelly, 2012, p. 1051). With regard to an argument that developed countries must as a principle bear more burden for the protection of the environment as compared to developing countries, the problem of moral hazard can be that the international arrangement that allows such transfer of ‘mitigation outcomes, can lead to developing countries undertaking activities that are risky for the environment on the understanding that the corresponding mitigation activities of the developed countries would cancel out the risks.

In other words, developing countries that do not undertake a responsible share of mitigation activities, such as, reduction of emissions under climate change arrangement, will continue to take on risky behaviour, such as more emissions than their targets, based on the understanding that developed states will mitigate the risks to the environment. The drawback of an approach to international arrangements that seek to mitigate environmental degradation, that allows developing countries to take on fewer responsibilities and prioritise their economic growth over their environmental protection is that developing countries may fall behind in investing in technologies or mechanisms that help them to reduce environmental degradation. An example of the moral hazard is already seen in the way the Paris Agreement has failed to address climate change and this is discussed in more detail in this section.

The Paris Agreement (Paris Agreement, Dec. 1/CP.21, Annex, UN Doc. FCCC/CP/2015/10/Add.1), is the successor of the Kyoto Protocol (Kyoto Protocol, Dec. 11, 1997, 2303 UNTS 162). Compared to the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement takes a more modest and flexible approach to climate change (Bodansky, 2016). The reason why the Paris Agreement took a more flexible approach to the climate change issue is located in the paradigm shift noted in the 2009 Copenhagen Conference, when Kyoto Protocol’s strict architecture was considered to be one of the reasons why it found less acceptance from countries and it was considered that a more flexible approach would stand a greater chance to succeed in the objectives of reducing emissions and climate change (Bodansky, 2010). One of the reasons why a strict architecture of Kyoto Protocol was not acceptable to many developing countries was the genuine need of such countries to provide the most basic of amenities to its populations and the problems that they faced in implementing environmental laws that may constrain their yet developing industry (Lazarus, 2009). The Paris Agreement was adopted in December 2015 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, with an overarching goal of containing “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre- industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” (Paris Agreement, Article 2.1).

The flexibility of the Paris Agreement is reflected in the way the governments have been allowed to balance the need to protect the environment through lowered emissions with the need to ensure sustainable food production and economic development in their own jurisdictions. This allows the Paris Agreement to differentiate between developed and developing nations so as to consider equity between developed and developing nations in terms of contribution to the Paris Agreement. Article 4.1 of the Paris Agreement is relevant to how this equity is achieved:

“In order to achieve the long term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country parties…on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty” (Paris Agreement, Article 4.1).

What the above means is that the developed nations will be required to reach global peaking before developing nations and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a greater degree and sooner than developing nations. This system is then structured in the way that allows developed and developing countries to formulate Intended Nationally Determined Contributions/ Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs or NDCs), which are the undertakings of these different countries as to how they will contribute to the reduction of emissions. The difficulty is that this allows the application of a bottoms-up approach where the states are allowed to determine for themselves what they can contribute and there is little normative effect of this approach for reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement. In the context of the developing countries, INDCs may be much more relaxed as compared to the developed countries, and the developing countries are even allowed more time for moving towards economy-wide targets (Paris Agreement, Article 4.4).

Article 4.1 of the Paris Agreement allows countries to contribute to the reduction of emissions “on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty” (Paris Agreement, Article 4). This has meant that countries have specified emission curbs in individual INDCs justified under equity, sustainable development and poverty eradication (Damassa, 2015). This then creates a moral hazard because the developing countries do not have the same motivation to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and may even consider that the higher responsibilities undertaken by the developed countries absolves the need for the developing countries to make stricter laws for environmental protection or invest in technologies that can help them to reduce emission.

The differential argument fallacy

It is to be admitted that developing countries have particular needs and cannot be equated with the developed countries with regard to how far they can limit their industry, and that this ‘differentiation argument’ is justified to a degree because of the different historical responsibilities of countries for causing the climate change and the differing capabilities to address climate change problem. The developed industrialised world has more responsibility for climate change because of the early development of industry and the limited concern for environment in the industry building period while they now have better capabilities as compared to developing countries to address the problem of climate change (Rajamani, 2006). However, does this justify developing countries’ prioritisation of economy over environment?

It can be argued that there is historical truth to the claim that developed countries are more responsible for the environmental degradation and climate change as compared to developing countries. It can also be argued that the developed countries are more technologically advanced so that they are placed in a better position with regard to the development of technologies than can mitigate environmental degradation. However, these arguments cannot be reasonably used to justify a big margin of differentiation between developed and developing nations with regard to their responsibilities to contribute to the protection of the environment. It is not appropriate to use historical facts as reasons for compromising the regime for global environmental protection. In the current period, the historical facts justification is also weakened by the fact that there are developing countries that are producing significantly more emissions than the developed world. For example China, technically a developing country, is the biggest emitter in the world and has consistently accounted for more emissions than any other country in the world for some years past (Liu, et al., 2015). In 2012, China’s contribution to global emissions was 25 percent equalling the combined emissions by the United States and European Union (Liu, et al., 2015).

Environment as a global phenomenon

The environment is inherently a global phenomenon because ecological processes are not always restricted to national boundaries and the impacts of environmental degradation and harm are felt across borders of national jurisdictions (Byg & Salick, 2009). This is the reason why there is an argument for recognition of shared responsibilities towards the protection of the environment (Byg & Salick, 2009). The nature of the global phenomenon of the environment also means that there is an intrinsic link of environment to economic development because the former provides natural resources that fuel growth; meaning that while developing countries may seek to exploit the environment for its resources for growth of economy, overexploitation of these resources may also lead to a situation where there are none left for the aid in development of the economy and industry. Another point to be noted is that environmental problem is globally related and affects different communities and groups irrespective of where it originates, which calls for the cooperation of all countries in the world. It would then be a specious argument that environmental protection can be achieved without the cooperation of the developing countries.

Nevertheless, the argument that developing countries be allowed to have a significant differentia in contribution to environmental protection has led to challenges for a global fight against environmental degradation. It has been said that outside of Europe, where the environmental protection works because it is based on the consent of the Member states, an effective consensus on environment has been difficult to achieve (Davies, 2017). The biggest impediment for the effective implementation of international environmental protection law is the existence of conflicting interests of development and environmental protection, which despite the evolution of the sustainable development principle in the Brundtland Report, has failed to be abated.

By avoiding similar prioritisation of environment as developed countries may do, the developing countries in the Global South would not escape the global effects of climate harm which have steep economic costs for these countries as well. One of the effects that has been written of in the literature on developing countries and environment harm is that of forced migration from developing countries to developed countries (Boano, et al., 2007). Forced migration refers to the unwilling migration of people from part of the world to another. Environmental degradation is one of the factors that has been increasingly identified as a reason for increase of forced migration in various parts of the world (Boano, et al., 2007). The term ‘environmental refugees’ has been used to describe migrants who are forced to leave their homes due to the direct and indirect impacts of ecological changes (Boano, et al., 2007). The term has been defined by el-Hinnawi as follows:

“those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life” (el-Hinnawi, 1985, p. 4).

In many countries of the Global South, ecological changes have impacted the homelands of communities making it hard for them to secure livelihood due to onsets of “droughts, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty” and this has led to communities and people trying to migrate to other placed (Myers, 2005, pp. 6-7). Thus, environmental degradation is one of the reasons for forced migration, which has economic implications for the countries in the Global South as well from where majority of the forced migration is taking place. People are leaving their countries in the Global South due to the problems associated with changes in climate and ecology that are manifested in problems like lack access to potable water, deforestation, and reduced productivity in agriculture and fisheries (Boano, et al., 2007).

The economic costs of prioritising economy over the environment

The period between 1980-2000 saw the displacement of 141 million people in 3,559 natural hazard events, with more than 95% of such people in developing countries (Gilbert, 2001). These have economic implications as well for the developing countries. Furthermore, there is more depletion of natural resources like timber, fossil fuels, wild life or minerals in developing countries because of overexploitation of the resources (Shapiro, 2016). These events demonstrate that no country can consider itself to be an outlier with respect to the effects of environmental harm and that environmental harm can manifest itself in natural disaster events that can take place anywhere in the world.

Indeed, it may be noted that the future costs of environmental damage cannot be ascertained at this time and it is possible that developing countries may pay considerable costs of environmental damage in the future (Pindyck, 2020). These costs could be the result of loss of habitat, compromised health and diseases caused by environmental factors and job losses; for instance, it has been reported that climate change is likely to impact developing countries disproportionately with increased medical costs, job losses and habitat losses (Bailey, 2016). Thus, if developing countries choose to take a ‘grow now and clean up later’ approach, they are likely to have considerable economic costs at future time. They may even have social costs of such approach, such as, potential job losses and habitat losses. For instance, it is posited that continuing global warming threatens the submerging of many places in developing countries in the next few decades. Therefore, prioritising of economy over environment in absolute terms until they have attained a certain level of per capita income, does not make economic sense in the long term for developing countries. It is more reasonable to take a balanced approach towards the supposed economy-environment dichotomy.

Indeed, it may be noted that the future costs of environmental damage cannot be ascertained at this time and it is possible that developing countries may pay considerable costs of environmental damage in the future (Pindyck, 2020). These costs could be the result of loss of habitat, compromised health and diseases caused by environmental factors and job losses; for instance, it has been reported that climate change is likely to impact developing countries disproportionately with increased medical costs, job losses and habitat losses (Bailey, 2016). Thus, if developing countries choose to take a ‘grow now and clean up later’ approach, they are likely to have considerable economic costs at future time. They may even have social costs of such approach, such as, potential job losses and habitat losses. For instance, it is posited that continuing global warming threatens the submerging of many places in developing countries in the next few decades. Therefore, prioritising of economy over environment in absolute terms until they have attained a certain level of per capita income, does not make economic sense in the long term for developing countries. It is more reasonable to take a balanced approach towards the supposed economy-environment dichotomy.

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Steps that can be taken by developing countries to take a balanced approach to economy-environment

Developing countries can invest in environmental innovation according to their own economic capacities. Environmental innovation consists of developing new or modified processes, systems, and products that can mitigate environmental damage (Kemp, et al., 2001). The purpose of such innovation is to mitigate externalities to reduce environmental damage (Horbach, 2008). At the same time, innovations can also lead to more productivity while also managing environmental issues in a more effective manner.

Developing countries can also apply the concept of environmental impact assessment as a policy measure (Glasson & Therivel, 2019). Environmental impact assessment is a process, and it has been explained by the International Association for Impact Assessment as “the process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social and other relevant effects of proposed development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made” (IAIA , 2009, p. 1). The national commitment to undertake Environmental Impact Assessments was also made at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, wherein Principle 17 of the Final Declaration asked that countries undertake environmental impact assessment as a national instrument so as to assess how activities with significant adverse impact on the environment can be identified and assessed.

Conclusion

The economy-environmental protection dichotomy need not be seen from the perspective of trade-offs that cannot be reconciled and where developing countries have to choose between either the economy or the environment. Arguing that developing countries can justifiably prioritise economy over the environment is flawed because it may not even be economically justified to do so. Research referred to in this essay demonstrates that environmental degradation itself comes at high economic costs that relate to public health, ecological loss, potential loss of habitat due to global warming, to name a few. Developing countries choosing to prioritise their economic development over their environmental protection may not be able to avoid such economic costs in the long run. Furthermore, environmental damage does not restrict itself to national boundaries when it leads to events, such as, natural disasters. Developing countries would be as much impacted by these events, and in some cases, more disproportionately impacted by these events in the long run. Therefore, environmental protection is not negotiable and cannot be ignored for the benefit of the economy, especially considering that such events have steep economic costs. Therefore, it would not be appropriate to prioritise economy over environment in absolute terms. At the same time, it cannot be denied that developing countries cannot let economic development be a secondary objective because they have to also ensure their equity. This calls for a balanced approach that can be constructed within the framework of sustainable development. This would call for ensuring that development in the country does not take place at an unreasonable cost to the environment. In other words, the developing countries would still be focussed on their economic development while also being mindful of the costs of the development for their environment. This would help them to develop an approach of innovation as they try to mitigate the environmental costs that they can identify with respect to their activities. Such costs can be identified through Environmental Impact Assessment.

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