COPENHAGEN – Despite gains in life expectancy, expanded access to education, and lower rates of poverty and hunger, the world has a long way to go to improve the quality of people’s lives. Almost a billion people still go to bed hungry, 1.2 billion live in extreme poverty, 2.6 billion lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation, and almost three billion burn harmful materials inside their homes to keep warm.
Each year, ten million people die from infectious diseases like malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis, along with pneumonia and diarrhea. Lack of water and sanitation is estimated to cause at least 300,000 deaths each year. Malnourishment claims at least 1.4 million children’s lives.
Poverty is one of the main killers. It is why children do not receive proper nutrition and live in neighborhoods with unclean water and inadequate sanitation. And it is why an entirely preventable disease like malaria kills 600,000 people each year; many are too poor to buy drugs and bed nets, while governments are often too poor to eradicate the mosquitos that carry the disease or contain and treat outbreaks when they occurs.
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But some of the most lethal problems are environmental. According to the World Health Organization, about seven million deaths each year are caused by air pollution, with the majority a result of burning twigs and dung inside. Previous generations’ use of lead in paints and gasoline is estimated to cause almost 700,000 deaths annually. Ground-level ozone pollution kills more than 150,000 people per year, while global warming causes another 141,000 deaths. Naturally occurring radioactive radon that builds up inside homes kills about 100,000 people every year.
Here, too, poverty plays a disproportionate role. No one lights a fire every night inside their house for fun; they do so because they lack the electricity needed to stay warm and to cook. While outdoor air pollution is partly caused by incipient industrialization, this represents a temporary tradeoff for the poor – escaping hunger, infectious disease, and indoor air pollution to be better able to afford food, health care, and education. When countries become sufficiently rich, they can afford cleaner technology and begin to enact environmental legislation to reduce outdoor air pollution, as we now see in Mexico City and Santiago, Chile.
One of the best anti-poverty tools is trade. China has lifted 680 million people out of poverty over the past three decades through a strategy of rapid integration into the global economy. Extending free trade, especially for agriculture, throughout the developing world is likely the single most important anti-poverty measure that policymakers could implement this decade.
But it is also encouraging that the world is spending more money to help the world’s poor, with development aid almost doubling in real terms over the past 15 years. This has boosted resources to help people suffering from malaria, HIV, malnutrition, and diarrhea.
And, though the data are somewhat inconsistent, it is clear that the world is spending more on the environment. Aid for environmental projects has increased from about five per cent of measured bilateral aid in 1980 to almost 30 per cent today, bringing the annual total to about $25 billion.
That sounds great. The world can increasingly focus aid on the main environmental problems – indoor and outdoor air pollution, along with lead and ozone pollution – that cause almost all environment-related deaths.
Unfortunately, that is not happening. Almost all environmental aid – about $21.5 billion, according to the OECD – is spent on climate change.
There is no doubt that global warming is a problem that we should tackle smartly (though our track record so far has not been encouraging). But doing so requires cheap green energy, especially in the developed world, not spending aid money to reduce developing countries’ emissions of greenhouse gases like CO₂.
Even if we continue spending $11 billion to avoid an increase in greenhouse gases for a hundred years, we would postpone global warming by less than one month by the end of the century – an achievement with no practical impact for anyone on the planet
Indeed, there is something fundamentally immoral about the way we set our priorities. The OECD estimates that the world spends at least $11 billion of total development money just to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. A large part of this is through renewable power like wind, hydro, and solar. For example, Japan recently granted $300 million of its development aid to subsidize solar and wind power in India.
If all $11 billion were spent on solar and wind in the same proportion as current global spending, global CO₂ emissions would fall by about 50 million tons each year. Run on a standard climate model, this would reduce temperatures so trivially – about 0.00002oC in the year 2100 – that it is the equivalent of postponing global warming by the end of the century by a bit more than seven hours.
Of course, climate campaigners might point out that the solar panels and wind turbines will give electricity – albeit intermittently – to about 22 million people. But if that same money were used for gas electrification, we could lift almost 100 million people out of darkness and poverty.
Moreover, that $11 billion could be used to address even more pressing issues. Calculations from the Copenhagen Consensus show that it could save almost three million lives each year if directed toward preventing malaria and tuberculosis, and increasing childhood immunization.
It could also be used to increase agricultural productivity, saving 200 million from starvation in the long run, while ameliorating natural disasters through early-warning systems. And there would be money left over to help develop an HIV vaccine, deliver drugs to treat heart attacks, provide a Hepatitis B vaccine to the developing world, and prevent 31 million children from starving each year.
Is it really better to postpone global warming by seven hours? Even if we continue spending $11 billion to avoid an increase in greenhouse gases for a hundred years, we would postpone global warming by less than one month by the end of the century – an achievement with no practical impact for anyone on the planet.
Why does the world consciously choose to help so ineffectively? Could it be that environmental aid is not primarily about helping the world, but about making us feel better about ourselves?
This post originally appeared in Project Syndicate. © Project Syndicate 1995–2014