Thursday, December 2, 2010

Climate of Politics vs Economics of Development

In this article, I look at the political dimension of various environmental concerns. This is particularly relevant since the annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), opened in Cancun, Mexico, this week. Last week, the first global summit on tiger conservation was held in St. Petersburg, Russia. What is common to such diverse environmental agendas is that they offer enormous opportunity to political leaders to escape accountability. After all, if one claims to speak on behalf of the tigers, the animals won't make any demand. Likewise, if one claims to speak of protecting the interest of future generations 50 or 100 years later, the leaders can be sure that the future generations will not be able to hold them politically accountable for any misdeed. Such agendas tend to be political blank cheques! Please read and comment.

Can the climate save the tiger!

This week, the annual summit organized under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is taking place in Cancun, Mexico. But after the collapse of the talks in Copenhagen last December, and the continuing economic turmoil in many parts of the world, not many are expecting any radical outcome.

The summiteers in Cancun may want to follow another meeting that was held in St Petersburg, last week. Russia hosted a summit to focus attention on the plight of the tiger in the wild, mostly in Asia, and Siberia, called the International Tiger Conservation Forum, organised under the auspices of the Global Tiger Initiative of the World Bank.

Economics of Tiger

The wild tiger has been facing the prospect of extinction for the past 40 years. Various initiatives such as Project Tiger were launched in early 1970s. Trade in tiger parts has been banned since 1975, (for Siberian tiger in 1987). Nearly two decades ago, the World Bank had launched the Global Environment Facility, a fund which was to have been used, among others, to help develop sustainable ecology in villages and reduce the human pressure on the forest and wildlife. Today, in India, many of the village eco-development committees are either non-existent or defunct.

India, which is home to about half of world’s tiger population, ranging between 1200 to 1500, now has nearly 40 forests areas are declared as tiger reserves. Thousands of villages dot these so-called tiger havens, where neither the tiger nor the people feel safe. In any such conflict between man and animal, where human toll ranges in a few hundred each year, the animal will necessarily lose out.

While participants gathered in Russia, in Chandrapur village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, a tiger was found dead, and officials tallied the number of people killed, presumably by tigers, in the district to 11 this year. A senior official in Madhya Pradesh estimated that there were over 700 villages in the different tiger reserves in the central Indian state, but about 100 villages are really critical, located in the heart of the tiger territories, and the people need to be moved and resettled elsewhere. For just this task, the bill could be around $600 million.

The summiteers in St Petersburg discussed the threat to tiger, promised $350 million over the next few years, and environmentalists complained that barely 10% of this is new money.

It is this kind of hopeless mismatch between the ground realities and global discourse, which has only perpetuated the crisis, whether it is the tiger or the climate. Ironically, most of the environmental activists look at people as the problem, and fail to think of people as the possible solution as well.

Almost every species that brings any economic benefit to the people are generally nurtured and preserved. The humble cow is not facing extinction, despite massive economic exploitation. Wilderness areas with tigers can attract tourists, nature lovers and hunters, and generate revenue. Particularly, if the people living in the vicinity have some form of property right and ownership in the animal, the habitat and can legitimately claim a share in the profits. It is estimated, that annually fishing and hunting generates economic activity in the range of $ 50 to 70 billion.

A dead tiger is equally valuable for its skins and bones, for fashion and Chinese traditional medicine, respectively. Since the tiger breeds easily, even in captivity, it could be possible to breed them to meet the demand, again generating economic benefits.

Alligator farming in just the state of Louisiana, in the US, generates $20 million annually. Rather than breeding tigers for commerce, the participants at St Petersburg promised stronger effort at enforcing prohibition, a policy that has not helped the cause.

In addition, if trade is liberalized, there could be significant demand for tigers in zoos, private collectors,circuses and among a section of exotic animal owners. There is no reason for such a magnificent and valuable species to face the prospect of extinction from the wild, if only one practiced what is generally preached at every environmental summit – think globally, but act locally. Particularly, allow the local people the freedom to act, since they know their immediate environment much better than anyone else.

But many environmental activists, and their political allies, are more interested in focusing on the problem, rather than practical solutions. Focusing on the problem creates an illusion for the various green summiteers that they are seriously engaged. And it’s this illusive perception that usually helps political leaders to consolidate their power. As for the solutions, if the problem were to be really solved, a whole range of activists and managers, who have thrived from the political patronage, will lose their bread and butter.

Claiming to represent the tiger is an attempt to secure a political blank cheque. After all, tigers make no demand to the political leaders, unlike the increasingly demanding human voters.

Politics of Climate 

The debate on climate change actually illustrates the same argument. A problem is proposed so far ahead in the future, typically 50 to 100 years, that political leadership across the world finds it very convenient to escape accountability, in the name of the future generations. After all, the future generations will never be able to hold the present leaders accountable.

But if people’s present priorities are not met, the prospect of that political power turning out to be a mirage is quite real. The collapse of so many totalitarian and authoritarian political regimes in the past two decades is an illustration of that reality too.

Like the tigers, the leaders face a practical problem today. Most people, particularly in poor countries, have many immediate problems to grapple with. For two billion people, daily survival is a top priority, and they cannot afford the luxury of considering future options, decades or generations down the road.

So political leaders gathering in Cancun will have to again consider the option of either dealing with a distant future, or confront the realities of today. Whether planet’s climate will change 100 years later, and wreck havoc on the people is uncertain. But what is not in doubt is that at least 2 billion people around the world do not have access to clean and safe energy. In India alone, particularly in the villages, indoor air pollution from inefficient cooking stoves poses daily health hazard to millions, with an estimated annual death toll of around 500,000.

Diseases may pose a problem in the future, but malaria poses a daily threat to hundreds of millions today. Tens of thousands of people die each year in rural areas of India and elsewhere, because the rural clinics do not have reliable electricity to run the refrigerators and preserve many medicines, vaccines and anti-venoms.

Two decades ago, ozone depletion was considered to be a top threat, increasing the risk of skin cancer to people with lighter complexion. Under the auspices of the UN, the governments agreed to replace the CFCs, used in air-conditioning, refrigeration and various aerosol sprays, which were believed to be the culprits. Today, there is not much talk of ozone-hole, or skin cancer epidemic, but the HFCs that ultimately replaced the CFCs, are believed to be a far potent greenhouse gas, contributing to global warming.

Over the past year, the political undertones of the global warming debate have been thoroughly exposed. The mis-pronouncements of the IPCC were not mere mistakes, but inevitable consequence of following the political lead. The political risk of miscalculation is very high, and which is why the political leaders are wary. The leaders of the rich countries, which typically funded or supported many of the environmental causes, no longer have the economic muscle to engage in their favourite pastime. 

This provides a golden opportunity for political leaders going to Cancun, to focus on the realities of today. Whether it is the pressure on forests which is threatening the habitat of the tiger, or the lack of access to safe and cheap energy, these problems of today, affect millions, and these are all manifestation of misguided regulations stifling opportunities for economic development.

Reality check

With economic freedom, countries like China and India would be able to afford more efficient energy technologies, and reduce the load of pollution on the environment. After all, even with currently available technologies, energy intensity of Germany at 0.12 tons of oil equivalent for $1000 of GDP(2005), is less than one fifth of India’s at 0.68. Likewise, with economic development, and improvement in agricultural efficiencies, pressure on forest would decline, improved habitat will help revive the wildlife, including the tiger. It is agricultural productivity that helped China expand its man-made forest cover by over 2 million hectares, annually, from 2004 to 2008. In contrast, India added 0.3 million hectares annually, between 1997-2007, India. It is this kind of development that has allowed the US to reintroduce wildlife in to areas from where they had disappeared decades ago.

Today, half the world population does not have access to reliable sources of energy. Ignoring that reality, and focusing on a problem that may or may not occur 50-100 years later and demanding a reduction in consumption today, will not be very politically palatable.

If Copenhagen in 2009, exposed the limits of political power, Cancun could show the enormous possibilities if the political leadership of free countries focus more on the real concerns of today, rather than choosing to enter a battle like Don Quixote! That battle may be very exciting, but also completely futile. It is the economics of development that should determine the climate of politics, rather than the other way round. It is only with economic development, will environmental quality improve as well.

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