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Economic Development is Actively Destroying the Environment

Economic Development is Actively Destroying the Environment

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By: Ambika Natarajan

“I don’t want to give the illusion that my presence in the government means we’re answering these issues properly — and so I have decided to leave the government.”

And so, on a live radio broadcast with France Inter, the French environmental minister, Nicolas Hulot, resigned on August 28, 2018. Having not told anyone about the decision beforehand it is impossible to say whether his decision was premeditated or impulsive. Regardless, it spoke to the level of frustration that Hulot, an environmental expert, felt as he navigated the political side of advocating for environmentalism. Hulot resigned because the most that the political world as a whole is doing for the environment is not enough. His anger was justified because institutional economic goals are constantly prioritized over environmental goals, actively creating an environment that will be detrimental to society in the long run.

Across the board, institutions are more concerned about the state of the economy than the state of the environment. In 2017, President Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, stating: “Compliance with the terms of the Paris Accord and the onerous energy restrictions it has placed on the United States could cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025 according to the National Economic Research Associates.” The Paris Agreement would put many people under enormous financial insecurity, and his decision, at least in the short run, favors economic stability for Americans. OPEC too, viewed its economic concerns in its address to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 23) in 2017. In a statement acknowledging support of the Paris Agreement, OPEC drew attention to, in their opinion, the larger crisis of “energy poverty”. Mohammad Sanusi Barkindo, the Secretary General of OPEC, states: “...1.1 billion people in developing countries that continue to suffer from acute energy poverty. It is not about a transition from one energy source to another; it is about the right to have access to modern energy services for the first time.” OPEC claimed that to live a dignified life, people need access to energy.  Warmth, transportation, and technology all exemplify what energy provides and what a developing country needs to grow. Avenues for future growth are important to Mexico as well, seeing as Mexico City is currently undergoing the construction of what will be the second largest airport in the world. According to the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, the airport will “...have such an impact in the country’s economy that it could be comparable to the Panama Canal.” Not only would the airport boost tourism in the region, it would become a major transfer location between the United States and any country to its south, and increase the number of jobs available within the region. Economic well-being is the goal of many institutional policies and decisions and is maintained on a scale that mimics the world’s view of its importance. However, many of these cases fail to address the environmental impact of these decisions on the world, humanity included, which is much more deleterious in the long run.

In fact, all of these cases clearly have negative environmental effects. The US left the Paris Agreement in 2017, when it was reported, according to the Global Carbon Atlas, to have the second largest quantity of carbon emissions in the world. According to Brad Plumer of the New York Times, the move was significant not only from the angle of a major polluter leaving the Paris Agreement, but because the US could sway influence on other countries’ environmental decisions. Mexico City’s new airport also has economic interests that are in direct conflict with environmental interests. Paloma Martinez and Jason Hickel wrote the following for Al Jazeera: “Air travel is an ecological disaster. The industry is set to double in size by 2035, and by 2050 could contribute up to 22 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Projects like NAICM might cash in on this growing industry.” This project, apart from creating other issues like displacing the people from the local region and destroying a lake, demonstrates how a developing nation like Mexico acts based on the pressures to join the global market, neglecting the environment. OPEC, of course, is pushing for the use of fossil fuels through a humanitarian lens.

What can be confusing about this issue is that climate change fits neatly within the twenty-first century narrative; it seems like these issues are being addressed. The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), organized under the umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was supposed to create a forum to brainstorm solutions for the impending crisis and to connect a number of nations who could support each other with the implementation of resulting policies.  The main result of COP21 was the Paris Agreement, announced on December 12, 2015. Some of the key takeaways from the Agreement included aiming for a change in global temperature that is less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures before 2030, cultivating sinks for greenhouse gases, investing in technology that is not harmful to the environment, and being transparent when reporting national greenhouse gas emission levels. By 2017, the Paris Agreement had been ratified by 125 countries.

However, the Paris Agreement on its own is not doing enough to support the measures necessary to curb climate change. According to recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the planet is just under ten years away from reaching 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, which will greatly affect the biodiversity and ecosystems of the planet. Additionally, the effects of climate change are going to worsen the conditions of the impoverished. The World Bank, for example, published a report on the effects of climate change on agriculture and disease and the related implications for the impoverished. Up to “100 million, the report says, will become poor due to rising food prices,” especially since “In some regions, the poorest residents use more than 60 percent of their income to buy food.” The environmental crisis will result in malnourishment and a global health crisis, both of which, notably, will push afflicted communities further away from economic development.

Major institutions continuously prioritize short-term economic growth over environmental standards that resist climate change, and this economic growth actively impedes the world’s ability to meet its climate change goals. What the new IPCC report aims to highlight is that the effects of climate change can no longer be viewed from within a long-term framework; it is likely that the adverse effects of climate change will be felt before the possible benefits of the economic decisions that are currently being made begin to materialize, maybe sooner than 2030. Perhaps institutions choose to ignore the consequences because those with money will not immediately feel the impact of climate change, or maybe the economic impact of climate change is too hypothetical to consider seriously. Either way, it is clear that climate change is not being addressed at a magnitude equivalent to its potential impact on humanity. Hulot, it seems, has given up.

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