By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant
New sustainable development initiatives show that economic development without damaging the environment is possible. Rather than hindering growth, protecting the local environment often goes hand-in-hand with economic development. Such is the case for the coastal village of Wakatobi, Indonesia, whose fishermen rely on healthy coral reefs for their livelihood. In the Philippines, the electricity’s high cost has sparked a boom in the construction of energy-efficient buildings. A report from the Risky Business Project demonstrates that even a developed country like the United States stands to benefit economically from climate change mitigation. These examples show how countries at all development levels can improve economic outcomes in ways that lessen their detrimental environmental impact.
Developing countries with concerns about climate change’s effects can take proactive steps to avoid dependence on fossil fuels. In centuries past, increased fossil fuel consumption drove the industrialization of many countries before rising global temperatures became a prevalent issue. Industrialized nations built up a massive infrastructure of mines, pipelines, and power plants to support their carbon-based economies. Developing countries that lack this infrastructure should seize the opportunity to leapfrog old technology in favor of more sustainable options. Countries that choose to develop by burning fossil fuels could find themselves falling behind once again as the rest of the world transitions towards alternative energy sources.
Sustainable development places value in the environment as a whole rather than each exploitable resource. In Indonesia, a project that revived coral reefs also increased native fish populations, leading to higher incomes for local fisherman. One former fisherman makes more money with a new ecotourism business that offers diving trips to the reefs, while other villagers sell crafts and other goods to the tourists. None of this extra income would be possible without a conscious effort to protect the reefs.
In addition to raising incomes, sustainable development can save money for consumers. The high price of electricity in the Philippines has pushed homebuyers to look for homes that use less energy for heating and cooling. To support this effort, the Department of Public Works and Highways is preparing to release its National Green Building Code that reduces the energy consumption of new buildings. The proposed guidelines will either not add any additional construction cost or they will pay for themselves in energy savings within five years. Homeowners can then spend the money they save on other quality-of-life improvements.
Industrialized countries like the United States can also protect their development gains from climate change effects. The Risky Business Project, led by prominent business leaders like Michael Bloomberg and Thomas Steyer, details the economic impacts of higher temperatures in the near future. Declining crop yields, damage to coastal properties, and higher energy costs combine to place a high dollar value on inaction. Stronger storms and rising sea levels will imperil coastal cities and infrastructure, and higher average temperatures will increase the cost of air conditioning and expenses associated with deleterious public health problems. These findings echo the conclusions of the Stern Review, commissioned by the British government in 2006, which estimated the costs of rising temperatures at anywhere from 5-20% of global GDP annually without immediate action. Not just a purely environmental concern, climate change will have huge financial costs for developed countries.
Developing and industrialized countries alike must recognize that climate change impacts will be felt everywhere. Armed with better knowledge on the effects of carbon emissions, developing countries have the opportunity to forge a new path towards economic growth using clean energy alternatives. At the same time, developed countries can prevent expensive damage to the infrastructure they have already built. Identifying common interests is critical because the response to global climate change will require contributions from everyone. More individuals would realize their interest in protecting their local and global environment if they knew the economic costs of inaction and development based on fossil fuels.