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Dalibor Rohac: The environmentalist movement would lock the developing world in poverty

Dalibor Rohac is a Research Fellow at the London-based Legatum Institute.

LEG_Large_NavyBG_Gold_jpg There is no rational basis for the series of extravagant claims made by the latest edition of biannual study "Living Planet," published by the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Of course, the WWF ought to be commended for its efforts to preserve biodiversity around the world. However -- while biodiversity is a worthy goal -- in pursuing it the WWF too often seems to forget about members of the human species - particularly the most vulnerable ones, living in developing countries. For instance, their campaign with SkyNews called for a blanket ban on importation of palm oil, in spite of the fact that most companies producing palm oil do adhere to standards of sustainable harvesting, and employ hundreds of thousands.

If taken seriously, the "Living Planet" report can lead to policy solutions such as this that will certainly hurt millions of people in developing countries.  One would think that such policies should only be undertaken in light of very solid scientific conclusions.  However, the scholarly foundations on which the report's bold claims stand are quite fragile, as they are based on the rather dubious practice of identifying recent trends and simplistically extrapolating them forward into the future - a method that fails to account for either the temporary nature of the underlying causes or the human capacity to adapt to changing conditions.

For example, the main metric used in the study is biocapacity - defined as the area available to produce renewable resources and to absorb CO2. This includes mostly grazing land, crop land, fisheries, forests, and natural resources needed to absorb carbon emissions. By the report's own admission, the rather extravagant claim that we are now using 50 percent more resources than the Earth can sustain - and that by 2030 we will be using twice as much as the Earth can provide - is driven almost entirely by the WWF's estimate of the area needed to absorb current carbon emissions and by the rapid increase in CO2 emissions since the 1960s.

Nevertheless, we know that people do adjust to changing conditions and to constraints which they face. Land use - in agriculture, in industry or in commercial development - is very different when land is abundant and when it is scarce. Similarly, agriculture has undergone massive changes in response to the relative abundance of land and labour in various areas of the world. The Green Revolution in agriculture of South-East Asia, for instance, led to dramatic increases in yields of rice and other grains, and enabled India and Bangladesh to avoid the famines that had been predicted by environmental alarmists.

Overall, there are no signs that the world is running out of agricultural resources such as arable or grazing land. Food prices have undoubtedly increased in the past decade, but this can be largely explained by the massive subsidizing of bio fuel production, for which the environmentalist movement is largely responsible.

It is true that we are currently burning fossil fuels at an unprecedented pace and basic chemistry tells us that it will take a long time until all that carbon will be again fully absorbed by the Earth. Nonetheless, it is certain that the current trends will not continue indefinitely. Modern history of mankind has been mostly a history of switching from one energy source to another. When alternative technologies are developed and become cheaper than fossil fuels, people will start using them - in the same way as Britain started burning coal when wood became relatively more expensive.

There is a frightening aspect to the thinking implicit in the WWF's report and in the environmentalist movement in general. If their policy recommendations were taken literally, they would lock people in the developing world in poverty. The report, for example, deplores the loss of biodiversity, as measured by the Living Planet Index. Upon closer inspection, most of the losses can be accounted for in the tropical component of the Index - while biodiversity in temperate climates has actually increased.

It is straightforward to note that countries in the tropics are those which are only at the beginning of the process of their industrialisation. In contrast, the temperate climates coincide with higher income countries, which have already been through the phase of capital-intensive growth. This clearly suggests is that being prosperous is actually good for the quality of the environment and for biodiversity.

We should also realise that both the levels of income and the quality of the environment we are enjoying in the West have come at the cost of substantial environmental damage which occurred in the past. As early as during the Stuart period, England was widely deforested, and most environmental indicators were alarming during the 18th and the 19th centuries. Yet who would now say that the Industrial Revolution should not have taken place because of concerns about biodiversity?

In the same way, parts of the environmental damage occurring in developing countries are simply costs associated with an industrial take-off. While there is space for an intelligent discussion about how these costs could be reduced, it would be monstrous to try to stall economic development in the Third World for the sake of preserving the diversity of its animal species.


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