Can poor countries afford to show concern for the environment?

{question is adapted from a similar phrased question but which has different requirements according to the nuances in word choices. And forgive the outrageous length of the essay because it was obviously not written within the prescribed 1.5 hours but instead over a few days with revisions in upcoming months. Examples used have been labelled and I’ve tried to find their exact sources as far as possible.}

Can poor countries afford to show concern for the environment?

Economic development, or environmental sustainability? Presented with this question, many poor or developing countries instinctively choose “economic development”. Granted that the main priority of most poor countries is to lift the nation out of poverty and debt and achieve growth, such a stand is expected as many see the two as two distinct and conflicting positions. However, who is to say that one cannot choose in between, which is sustainable development? This stance has been championed by some to be the new and better development route for poor countries as it not only ensures economic growth in the short run but also the long term. Also, adopting environmentally friendly practices can help increase efficiency and thus save costs, allowing the accumulation of funds to be directed towards sustainable and “green growth”. Therefore, I think that most poor countries can afford to care for the environment, with the exceptions of those with less than ideal internal situations.


“Grow first, clean up later” [1] – such was the mantra of industrialised countries like US, UK and Japan in the past while they relentlessly pursued economic growth. Misled into thinking that this conventional economic development would make their own nations as prosperous as leading economies today, many poor countries fall into the trap of forgoing the need to develop their economies in a sustainable manner. However, this is a common misconception that environmental sustainability necessarily impedes economic growth, or that there is a trade-off between choosing either one (i.e zero-sum game). This pattern of industrialisation is obviously a faux pas: consider the fact that in 1969, only when the Cuyahoga River, choked with pollutants and bereft of aquatic life, caught fire, did the US realise their grave mistake of pursuing economic growth at the expense of the environment – a turning point for the industrialised nation. The US’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established a year later [2]. In fact, these mistakes can incur great costs, making it so that if a country had shown concern for the environment, such costs would not have arisen and impede the economy’s growth in the near future. The recent 2013 smog in China, where the concentration of particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, hit 900 parts per million – 40 times the level the World Health Organisation (WHO) deems safe – required an estimated US$275 billion over the next five years to clean up the air [3].  Although China has enjoyed double-digit growth in the last decade and pretty much hoisted the country as a whole out of abject poverty, the environmental damage incurred was totally disregarded; as such, today the economy and the people’s health have to pay the price to clean up their past pollutive acts, greatly hampering their growth today. Would it thus not seem that taking environmental considerations into account early was a more affordable and sustainable thing to do than relentlessly yearning for economic growth and facing greater economic repercussions in the future?


On this note, it can also be said that poor countries cannot afford not to care for the environment due to adverse health risks posed to its people due to air and water pollution for example. In an interview in 2005, China’s government minister, Pan Yu, notes that in Beijing alone, 70-80% of all deadly cancer cases are environment-related, with lung cancer as the leading cause of death [4]. This not only incurs huge medical and health costs, posing a great burden on the country’s already limited finances and further diverting away resources, workers are less efficient and effective and the people are deprived of making a living to feed their families. When the people and thus the workforce are healthy and in good physical condition, they are able to contribute to the economy more effectively.


In fact, going for green growth is actually much less expensive than paying for the costs of environmental damage in the future. In a study commissioned by the Indian government, the World Bank found the annual cost of environmental degradation (primarily on the impact on people’s health of pollution from burning fossil fuels – for example, an increase in cardiopulmonary disease among adults living in polluted urban areas) amounts to $80 billion or roughly 5.7% of India’s Gross Domestic Product [5]. On the contrary, adopting increasingly necessary low-emission “green-growth’’ is relatively inexpensive when looking at the larger picture: reducing air pollution and particle emissions by a third would lower India’s GDP by only 0.7%. There is a need for governments in poor countries to realise that there no trade-off between economic growth and protecting the country’s natural resources and the health of its people.


Admittedly, fears that MNCs might shift their undeniably pollutive production facilities to another low-cost country with less stringent environmental standards elsewhere, and thus deprive citizens of jobs and cause the country to lose a major source of income are not unfounded. However, there is increasing international consensus that MNCs should change their environmentally destructive practices – such as the PT Gistex Group’s dumping of chemical dyes down the Citarum River in Indonesia [6] – and the increasing chances for large corporations to face boycotts by environmentalists and advocacy groups, which have a growing support base globally. Due to both public opinion and long-term economic implications of inaction, more than 30 large US corporations (such as General Electric and Dupont) have joined an alliance called the US Climate Action Partnership, which presses for swift legislations on curbing emissions [7]. The Asia-Pacific Human Development Report 2012 also argues that “moving to greener, more resilient, lower-emission options that not only sustain the environment but also offer opportunities to the poor for employment and income” [8]. With less cause for worry over the possible loss of jobs and income, poor countries are more able to focus on caring for the environment knowing that it would not jeopardise the economy.


Some may contend that poor countries lack the necessary infrastructure, have a low level of technology and thus do not possess the adequate means or capacity to adopt environmentally friendly or green technologies. While it is true that adopting alternative cleaner technologies requires quite a bit of parting with already limited finances and hence may pose an issue of affordability, poor countries are not alone in the push towards greater environmental sustainability. Many international organisations and environmental agreements recognise that developing nations are inevitably inclined to prioritise economic development and lack the adequate infrastructure and technology to tend towards environmentally-friendlier ways. As such, they do provide them aid in the form of funds and machineries to make it more “affordable” for them transition to cleaner technologies while developing. This is recognised under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): “The extent to which developing country Parties will effectively implement their commitments under the Convention will depend on the effective implementation by developed country Parties of their commitments under the Convention related to financial resources and transfer of technology and will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties” [9]. Rio Declaration on Environment and Development also recognises in Principle 7 that “states have common but differentiated responsibilities…in view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation” [10]. For example, recognising the need for a low-carbon pathway to growth, Brazil has chosen to benefit from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) [11a], an innovative financial mechanism defined in Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol, earning saleable certified emission reduction credits. A complementary Adaptation Fund [11b] was also established to finance concrete adaptation projects and programmes in involved developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. This means that poor countries need not shoulder the full burden of caring for the environment, and can thus pursue economic growth that is sustainable with greater assurance.


Image and reputation may also be a concern. Especially in this increasingly environmentally-minded world, countries that are deemed to be more ecologically-conscious are seen in good favour, compared to those who do not. The Nigerian government lost some of its pride and face when the landmark 2011 UN report slammed the government and multi-national oil companies for pollution which dealt devastating damage to the Niger Delta for decades [12]. Indonesia’s lagging action in dealing with transboundary haze caused by deforestation in the country has been viewed disapprovingly by neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. If countries are not viewed in a good light based on how it handles environmental issues, confidence and willingness to offer other forms of aid to them may be undermined. This can be seen in the public’s waning rapport with the Obama administration in general for failing to take the lead in the environmental movement.


There are some encouraging positive indications of poor countries showing more concern towards the environment despite their individual economic situations and financial abilities: both India and Indonesia are committed to reducing emissions intensity of GDP by 20-25% by 2020 compared to the 2005 level and cutting emissions by 26% by 2020 respectively [13 a&b]. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has decided to achieve its aim of becoming a middle-income country by 2025 through developing a climate-resilient green economy [14] – rather than through the conventional development path which would result in dramatically increased carbon emissions and unsustainable use of natural resources. These are but a few examples of countries with different levels of “poorness” committing to meet their individual economic development goals in a sustainable way.


However, there is imprudent to henceforth conclude that all poor countries are able to afford to care for the environment: especially for poor countries in Africa, civil wars, social unrests and violent demonstrations are a daily affair. Take the spate of violent armed conflicts between Gaza and Israel, or the vicious Ebola pandemic in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Do these countries have the luxury to think about the environment? Also, can extremely poor countries who cannot even feed its people – such as Nicaragua – be reasonably asked to care for the environment? Countries embroiled in internal conflicts, epidemics or other problems are inundated with other more pressing, complicated issues that require full attention and devotion to seeking resolution. With already so much on their plates, they do not have the luxury of time nor attention to slowly ruminate/ponder over what harm to the environment they may inflict.


A little trivia to note is that showing concern for the environment does not necessarily entail great initial costs, amenities or efforts. What about small eco-friendly actions and behaviours which though may seem insignificant at the individual level, may actually collectively add up to something more impactful and significant via the ripple effect? In conclusion / putting all views into context, I think that the main issue of whether poor countries can afford to be concerned for the environment mainly lies in the battle between economic development and environmental sustainability. Many poor countries are clouded by their desire for growth above all else and are mistaken about the idea that economic development inevitably necessitates environmental damage (that the two are conflicting objectives), and that the concept of green growth is all but a “Western ploy” to hinder their economic progress. There is a need to correct/remediate/repudiate this fallacious view and help them recognise that incorporating sustainability into the development process is instead a vital key to alleviate poverty and increase economic growth. As an Indian proverb goes: Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

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[3] *note that China cannot be referred to as a ‘poor country’ since it can be said to be rather developed, unless you’re referring specifically to relative poverty in rural areas.



Comments are welcome!