Environment vs development: an inevitable trade-off? What’s on the cards for COP21

Last week, a group of prominent Australians published an open letter calling for world leaders to restrict the opening of new coal mines. The letter comes ahead of December’s upcoming climate conference in Paris, COP 21, where almost every country on the planet will gather in an attempt to draw up a universal climate change agreement. As well-intended as the letter may be, its publication should remind us of the ongoing debate around climate change and development. That is, can we really stem carbon emissions without also stifling development for the world’s poorest?


Despite often being considered as the fuel of the past, coal still accounts for 29% of the planet’s energy production, second only to oil at 31%. China and India rely on coal for 57% and 71% of their electricity needs respectively. Combined, these countries account for one third of global carbon emissions; however, their economic booms are estimated to have lifted almost one billion people out of poverty. This rise in prosperity for a sixth of the world’s population undoubtedly could not have been achieved without massive and cheap energy consumption.


Similarly, whilst it is widely accepted that climate change is set to most greatly impact the world’s poorest countries (due primarily to their reliance on climate-exposed sectors such as agriculture), the exploitation of carbon resources can fuel short-term economic growth whereby people benefit from increased access to affordable energy. What’s more, it is also recognised that the as GDP per-capita increases, poorer countries become less sensitive to global warming.


A 2007 paper by Rob Swart, coordinator international climate adaptation research at Wageninghen University, considers the dual goals of combatting climate change and alleviating poverty. He argues that there doesn’t necessarily have to be a zero-gain trade-off between the two. Elsewhere, attempts have been made to ascribe a figure to the ‘social cost of carbon’, ranging from $37 per ton of carbon dioxide (the official US government figure) to $200 per ton (according to research from Stanford University). However, it is still difficult to establish whether the overall impact of reduced fossil fuel consumption on developing countries is positive or negative.


Certain organisations are working to promote the climate change vs development agenda. One good example is Climate Change and Development in Africa (CCDA), which aims to promote links between climate science and development policy. Last week they held their annual conference entitled Africa, climate change and sustainable development: what is at stake at Paris and beyond?”


Whilst few doubt the real and pressing need to tackle climate change head-on, the answer is not simply a case of cutting all the use of carbon-emitting energy sources. If the ultimate aim of controlling global warming is to ensure global welfare, then we need to bear in mind the potentially stifling effect upon development in the poorest parts of the world. It may be indeed be possible to align both development and environmental goals, but not without careful and thoughtful planning. Let us hope that those attending COP 21 next month consider the full picture.

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