Posted by: tnowotny | February 20, 2014

poorer and wealthy countries do not see eye to eye in defining “sustainable development”

The coming world – order and the policy cleavage between  wealthy,  “emerging” and poor countries


As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  had reaffirmed just recently,  it is 95 percent certain by now  that the earth’s warming is caused by human activity. The  “greenhouses gases”  thus emitted stay entrapped  in the upper atmosphere  and prevent  heat from being radiated back into  outer space. While there still is no certainty on how much the earth’s surface temperature,  and on how much sea –level will rise as a consequence, most experts  agree that the results will be dire in the long run – especially after some tipping points will have been reached with subsequent massive release of methane gases into the atmosphere. All countries of the earth – all of its inhabitants will be affected. Yet poor countries and poor persons will be hit hardest.

That insight is not a recent one. It already had informed the Rio Earth Summit of 1993 with its passing of the “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”. That was followed by the 1995 Kyoto Protocol that set binding limits to the amount of greenhouses gases emitted by  the established, wealthy, already fully industrialized countries. No such binding limits were set to the emissions coming from the poorer and from the “emerging” countries. Yet even not all wealthy states proved willing to bind themselves to firm targets in curtailing greenhouse gas emissions; notably so the United States, which – until quite recently and until it had been overtaken by China – had been the main source of these emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol is set to expire by 2015.  In the meantime efforts were made to also have the United States and the  emerging countries such as China and India accept binding limits; and to include them in the successor regime  that would have to be in place in 2015 already. Without the full participation of these countries, without their accepting strict and binding limits to their greenhouse gas emissions, efforts to stop global warming will be in vain. Between 1990 and 2010 the European emissions had been lowered by 15%; those of China had increased by 280%; those of India by 198%

share in world – wide emission  of greenhouse gases

China……………        29%

US……………..           16%

European Union..  11%

Both China and India will be massively affected by the consequences of global warming. A good part of their citizens live in low lying delta regions where big rivers empty into the sea. With the level of the ocean rising, these regions and their mega cities would likely have to be abandoned. So why do China and India keep largely aloof from efforts to combat the causes of such a rise in the sea level? They seem to have other, more urgent  priorities.

This is not the only field, in which  global governance is being hampered by serious  policy differences between  the established, wealthy, already “post – industrial”  countries on the one side, and the still poorer, but rapidly “emerging” ones  on the other. That gap seems to widen. Today it would no longer be possible, for example, to again find consensus in the United Nations on an international “responsibility to protect” humans that have become victims  to violent internal conflict in weak and war – torn states.  Obviously too, the Rio + 20 conference of 2013 could not duplicate the great strides made in the first Rio Earth  Summit 20 years earlier. The results of Rio + 20 were meager. No progress could be registered on the crucial issue of global warming; and no progress either on other pressing issues such as a dearly needed global and strict regime for fishery on the high seas.

But if we look into the more distant past, or even just observe what has happened in the last 60 years, we will find similar, and even very serious policy differences that stood between the rich and the poor countries. One such difference emerged in the early Sixties of the last century over a “New Economic Order” and the challenges posed by the Latin – American “ Dependencia” theory. Present day policy difference thus have their precedents. Without  doubt, such differences had even been more marked in these early Sixties. But they had narrowed since and especially after the collapse of the Soviet empire and after the fracturing of the “Non – Aligned Movement”.

So why should we worry as they have become a bit wider again over the last twenty years?  We have to worry!  The failure to arrive at more binding and universally shared international regimes becomes ever more costly. This holds true not just for global environmental regimes, but also for regimes in the realm of basic human rights, for the world  monetary and financial system, for  the regime needed to govern  global cyber – space, and on many other security related issues. We may no longer continue with a diversity of uncoordinated national policies, such as it used to exist throughout history. What had been acceptable even a few decades ago, no longer is. In these last few decades, change has been explosively rapid. The growth in global wealth has accelerated, and  – with it – interdependence even more so. An ever greater share of what is produced locally is exported abroad. Reciprocally, an ever greater share of what is consumed locally is imported from abroad. We increasingly depend on those not our co –patriots. Within a mere twenty years, this share of the “external” –  this share that  merchandise trade holds in the gross domestic product of the world –  had risen from  25% to 45%.

             Source: world Development Indicators

In 1990, just 12,4 million cell – phones existed world- wide.  By 2011, they numbered 6 billions.

This interdependence implies added vulnerabilities and risks. The still rapidly growing world – population and its rapidly growing consumption press against  some physical limits set by the earth’s resource endowment. “Global Commons” ,  such as the oceans or the world monetary system,  have to be safeguarded by more careful and stricter management.  Solutions have to be found on a global level.

Some might argue that this goal of management on a global level would be largely redundant; as the desired goals could also be reached by each nation following its own best instincts. The sum of individual actions would ultimately result in a shared common good. At first sight, some figures on national environmental  policies  would seem to sustain such optimism. If we agree that increasing material wealth is  – so to say – the normal trajectory nations follow, we note that on this sliding scale of growing wealth, those better – off  follow much saner environmental policies than those still poorer. Salmons again swim in the Rhine; and the fog has lifted over London.

Yale index of environmental performance

Composed from a a number of indicators- the higher the number of the composite index, the better the performance))

Why do still poorer countries rank so low on this index? Is this warranted in the case of China, for example, in view of its vast investments in renewable energy and in re – forestation? Yet it is true, that notwithstanding such investments, quality of life in China is severely  impaired by air and water pollution. Even average  life – expectancy is affected negatively. One has to keep in mind, though, that these negative effects are  compensated and overcompensated by the beneficial effects of rising wealth.  This rise in wealth manifests itself not just in city – streets clogged by private cars, but – more importantly – by a stark decline of absolute poverty, by the growth of a middle class, by urbanization, by an  expansion of secondary and tertiary education, a reduction of fertility rates ( below “replacement level” ) and – yes – by life expectancy rising in spite of the damages done to health by the consequences of rapid industrialization, with  a new coal fired power station being added to the Chinese  grid each week on the average.

Or to put it in the stark terms of lives saved or lost: in China – which we use as an example – many more lives are saved and prolonged through rising material wealth, than are lost by the negative environmental fall – out of this rising wealth; such as the massive air pollution  caused by coal fired plants generating that electricity, which  is  needed to meet the demand of  a population both wealthier and more numerous.

The reverse holds true for rich countries. Even there, a few additional lives might be saved or prolonged as a consequence of a further rise in material wealth. But given the frequently negative fall – out of this growth, the “marginal utility” of this further increase is experienced as being negligible. Generally accepted indicators of human well – being,  such as the UNDP “Human Development Index -HDI”, show that from a certain level of income on, this growth in wealth relates but very loosely to an increase in well – being.

The Human Development Index

Indicators other than the Human Development Index provide a picture that is starker still. The “General Progress Indicator” , which includes environmental and  social sub – indices,  would show that for the US, no such overall progress would have been achieved over the last 30 years

If we look at the Human Development Index again, we cannot fail to note the wide variations in welfare that exist even between countries at the same level of wealth. Different cultures and different public policies ( or different cultures in conjunction with different public policies ) make for widely divergent outcomes. It is therefore this difference in private and public life style that  dominates  public discourse and politics. Poor countries search for material goals and the satisfaction of basic human needs. Creating the capacity to meet these needs is thus central in their politics. Politics in the wealthy countries, however,  revolve around life – style ( in its widest sense ). That provides ample room for the pursuit of policies promoting   the “global public good”, even when and where such a search would imply some – minor – subtraction from personal material wealth.

The  “World Value Survey” sums this up in the graph below

Those differences in outlook seep into global politics. The rich countries and the poorer  or “emerging” ones do not pursue identical goals the international arena.  This is but natural and this might have been even more pronounced forty, fifty or sixty years ago, when relations between the two groups were more antagonistic then they are today, with the poorer countries barricading themselves in  the counter – ideology of a “Third Way” and seeking redemption by  separation from the “Capitalist Centers”. That did not very much change the course of things and did not affect the world order as it had been established by the victorious powers in the aftermath of World War II. Climate change was not on the agenda then, and neither was the issue of bio – diversity. Whatever the poorer countries thought or did had little effect upon the world monetary system or the regime covering world trade. In these times, the  global system rested firmly and exclusively upon values and institutions established by the wealthiest part of humanity.

Since then, the world has changed profoundly. Europe and the US together still manage to produce half of the world’s total output. But this share is declining rapidly. US economic growth has become contingent  on China’s financing of its  – sizeable – current account deficit.  Large parts of industry and many services too, have been “outsourced”  from the wealthy to the “emerging” countries. Religiously inspired terrorism  threatens China, India, Russia as much as it threatens the United States or Europe. It is not longer just the wealthy of the world that will have the resolve, resources and power to decide upon the rules that govern the use of the oceans or that can hope to set a firm regime  to thwart the serious threat posed by global warming.

Also, the wealthy nations of the world should not delude themselves into the notion that they could simply bribe the poorer and the emerging countries into accepting their preferences. The financial transfers they could offer are small in comparison to the advantages emerging countries can reap from pursuing their own goals and prominently so their goal of fastest possible economic growth, even then when such rapid growth does damage to the environment and to the “global commons”.

China registers a GDP of  8 Trillion US Dollars, or  8.000 billion US Dollars. Reducing economic growth from an annual rate 10% to 5% thus would cost China  40 billion US Dollars annually. Total, world – wide “Official Development Assistance – ODA” amounts to 125 billion US Dollars. That implies that one Third of Global  ODA would have to be spent upon enticing China to halve  the pace of its GDP growth. Even if China were to accept such a deal, it its doubtful whether resources could be found to implement it.

It has been alleged that in the UN negotiations in the run – up to the Rio + 20 conference, the leader of the 77- Group, that is the leader of the world assembly of poorer nations,  has  had brackets put around the word “sustainable”  in the draft of the concluding document for the conference. I do not know whether this information is a reliable one; and – anyhow – the word “sustainable” then figured prominently in the Rio + 20  concluding document (which had been substituted  by Brazil for the one labored upon by the drafting committee in the New York UN headquarters). Yet the  issue is not whether the report on this attempt to remove the word “sustainable” is true or false. The important thing is that it sounds plausible.

Economic   – and with it political power – has shifted in the world; and with it the capacity to impact on the global political discourse and to set the formal and informal rules for world – governance.  At the same time, interdependence between nations has become more intense; and specifically also interdependence between the wealthy, the poor and the “emerging” countries.  This would necessitate firmer and more effective world governance on the base of shared values and concerns. But this base is still a fragile one. As shown in an exemplary fashion by the failure to agree on an effective regime to limit global warming, a postulated common interest is still drowned by more pressing and diverging goals. The gap is not easy to bridge.


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