Human cost of inaction incalculable


Human cost of inaction incalculable

March 21, 2012


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Gittins: The paradox of growth

Sidelining environmental concerns in our pursuit of economic growth will one day leave us far less well off. Ross Gittins


Do you ever wonder how the environment – the global ecosystem – will cope with the continuing growth in the world population plus the rapid economic development of China, India and various other ”emerging economies”? I do. And it’s not a comforting thought.

But now that reputable and highly orthodox outfit the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has attempted to think it through systematically. In its report Environmental Outlook to 2050, it projects existing socio-economic trends for 40 years, assuming no new policies to counter environmental problems.

It’s not possible to know what the future holds, of course, and such modelling – economic or scientific – is a highly imperfect way of making predictions. Even so, some idea is better than no idea. It’s possible the organisation’s projections are unduly pessimistic, but it’s just as likely they understate the problem because they don’t adequately capture the way various problems could interact and compound.

<i>Illustration: Kerrie Leishman</i>” /></p>
<p><em>Illustration: Kerrie Leishman</em></p>
<p>Then there’s the problem of ”tipping points”. We know natural systems have  tipping points, beyond which damaging change becomes irreversible. There are  likely to be tipping points in climate change, species loss, groundwater  depletion and land degradation.</p>
<p>”However, these thresholds are in many cases not yet fully understood, nor  are the environmental, social and economic consequences of crossing them,” the  report admits. In which case, they’re not allowed for in the projections.</p>
<p>Over the past four decades, human endeavour has unleashed unprecedented  economic growth in the pursuit of higher living standards. While the world’s  population has increased by more than 3 billion people since 1970, the size of  the world economy has more than tripled.</p>
<p>Although this growth has pulled millions out of poverty, it has been unevenly  distributed and has incurred significant cost to the environment. Natural assets  continue to be depleted, with the services those assets deliver already  compromised by environmental pollution.</p>
<p>The United Nations is projecting further population growth of 2 billion by  2050. Cities are likely to absorb this growth. By 2050, nearly 70 per cent of  the world population is projected to be living in urban areas.</p>
<p>”This will magnify challenges such as air pollution, transport congestion,  and the management of waste and water in slums, with serious consequences for  human health,” it says.</p>
<p>The report asks whether the planet’s resource base could support  ever-increasing demands for energy, food, water and other natural resources, and  at the same time absorb our waste streams. Or will the growth process undermine  itself?</p>
<p>With all the understatement of a government report we’re told that providing  for all these extra people and improving the living standards of all will  ”challenge our ability to manage and restore those natural assets on which all  life depends”.</p>
<p>”Failure to do so will have serious consequences, especially for the poor,  and ultimately undermine the growth and human development of future  generations.” Oh. That all?</p>
<p>Without policy action, the world economy in 2050 is projected to be four  times bigger than it is today, using about 80 per cent more energy. At the  global level the energy mix would be little different from what it is today,  with fossil fuels accounting for about 85 per cent, renewables 10 per cent and  nuclear 5 per cent.</p>
<p>The emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South  Africa (the BRIICS) would become major users of fossil fuels. To feed a growing  population with changing dietary preferences, agricultural land is projected to  expand, leading to a substantial increase in competition for land.</p>
<p>Global emissions of greenhouse gases are projected to increase by half, with  most of that coming from energy use. The atmospheric concentration of greenhouse  gases could reach almost 685 parts per million, with the global average  temperature increasing by 3 to 6 degrees by the end of the century.</p>
<p>”A temperature increase of more than 2 degrees would alter precipitation  patterns, increase glacier and permafrost melt, drive sea-level rise, worsen the  intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods and  hurricanes, and become the greatest driver of biodiversity loss,” the report  says.</p>
<p>Loss of biodiversity would continue, especially in Asia, Europe and southern  Africa. Native forests would shrink in area by 13 per cent. Commercial forestry  would reduce diversity, as would the growing of crops for fuel.</p>
<p>More than 40 per cent of the world’s population would be living in  water-stressed areas. Environmental flows would be contested, putting ecosystems  at risk, and groundwater depletion may become the greatest threat to agriculture  and urban water supplies. About 1.4 billion people are projected to still be  without basic sanitation.</p>
<p>Urban air pollution would become the top environmental cause of premature  death. With growing transport and industrial air emissions, the number of  premature deaths linked to airborne particulate matter would more than double to  3.6 million a year, mainly in China and India.</p>
<p>With no policy change, continued degradation and erosion of natural  environmental capital could be expected, ”with the risk of irreversible changes  that could endanger two centuries of rising living standards”. For openers, the  cost of inaction on climate change could lead to a permanent loss of more than  14 per cent in average world consumption per person.</p>
<p>The purpose of reports like this is to motivate rather than depress, of  course. The report’s implicit assumption is there are policies we could pursue  that made population growth and rising material living standards compatible with  environmental sustainability.</p>
<p>I hae me doots about that. We’re not yet at the point where the sources of  official orthodoxy are ready to concede there are limits to economic growth. But  this report comes mighty close.</p>
<p><strong> Ross Gittins is the economics editor.</strong></p>
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