Obligations to the Developing World: Economics & The Environment

Someone commented offline to my last post, and argued that I was being unsympathetic to the poor Chinese who should benefit from industrialization and that thus I should be advocating for tougher environmental protection in China.

First, the poor in developing countries should benefit from industrialization. However, technology has improved to the point where industrialization can occur with less environmental harm. Thus, Western nations have an obligation to provide such countries with resources to develop in a more sustainable way. Hence, for example, the 100 billion dollar (U.S.) climate fund for green technology proposed in the Copenhagen Accord whereby developed countries would provide developing ones with technology and money to support cleaner industrialization.

Second, China does not have a problem with written environmental law. The country has problems with enforcement resources and general problems with Rule of Law. There are too many Chinese to count that seek more environmental protection in China, but economic gains far outweigh environmental concerns. To the Chinese leadership, it is far more important to bring Chinese out of poverty than protect natural resources.

And given that cash is king in China (as it is in the U.S.; see, e.g, the Health Care debate), my current belief is that only more stringent domestic environmental laws in the U.S. and Europe coupled with tariffs on goods from developing countries that have poor environmental regulations will actually change the manufacturing practices of the developing word. This is not turning a blind eye on the poor—instead this is taxing Americans and American companies that buy cheap and “dirty” goods on top of the resources we should already be providing the developing world.

I will say that China is an interesting and unique case. Developing at a never-before-seen-in-history pace, and demanding the status as a national power (as any country would), but also skirting some global responsibilities based on the argument that it remains a poor country and ignoring Rule of Law (for example, intellectual property concerns of American companies). Should China have its cake and eat it too? Or is it true that “with great power comes with great responsibility?” For example, the U.S. will like pay 20% or 20 billion of the climate fund and pays for 20-25% of United Nations costs. I’m torn when it comes to China. Should the resource obligations of the West be less when it comes to China given its desired and actual status, or is that simply a view of those who do not share China’s domestic economy-first agenda and foreign policy preferences for isolation (e.g., China’s unwillingness to support the U.S. in its anti-nuclear proliferation agenda)?

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One Response to Obligations to the Developing World: Economics & The Environment

  1. L says:

    Hi Jason,

    Thanks for responding to my comments. I fully agree with you that China has responsibility to improve it’s environmental standards, and I also agree that we should think of ways to enforce it. I just don’t think that individual consumers buying local is the way to do this. First, individual actions don’t really send a signal very clearly. Second, there should be a way for developing countries, or even individual Chinese companies, to be able to show that they’re following environmental standards and get their exports. I think there has been tons of more sophisticated proposals on the table, and we should try to think of them instead (the tarriff that you suggested is a more sensible approach than individual buy local, but again, there should be a way that developed countries should be accountable for lifting out the tarriff once certain attainable conditions have been met). Also, the U.S. should stop subsidizing its agriculture and forcing other countries to buy its agricultural products, but this is another story

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