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Can we reverse global climate change? Part II

By Chandran Nair - posted Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Ever since the world has been plunged into financial crisis, developing Asia has only heard one mantra from developed country economists: boost consumption to restart the world’s economic engine. To follow their advice would set the stage for a far greater crisis that no amount of stimulus would be able to contain. On the contrary this is an opportunity for Asian leaders to call a halt to consumption-driven economic model and show the path of escape from environmental catastrophe that the model would ensure.

If the calls of some of the Western economists are taken to heart, and Asia comes even half-way to approaching Western consumption rates, all efforts to counter climate change and tackle other of the world’s pressing environmental and social challenges are doomed.

Quite simply, in our resource constrained world, there isn’t enough to go round for everyone to aspire to such levels of wealth and the associated levels of consumption.


If the majority of Chinese, say just half the population, get rich enough to start eating seafood - hardly an outlandish aspiration - then the oceans will soon be emptied. Neither technology nor money can address this problem though there are those who will try to convince us that even the mighty blue fin tuna can be farmed to sate our appetite for sashimi. But who is to say to the Chinese that they should be denied their swordfish and tuna.

At the same time if Indians aspire to own cars like westerners (currently less than 10/1000 people compared to about 700/1000 in the West) then the consequences for oil supply and prices, as well as the environment could be very serious. If Chinese and Indians reach western car ownership levels over the next 20-30 years, there could be anything from 1.5 to 2 billion cars just in these two countries. Some estimates suggest it would take the entire OPEC oil supply to fuel them. As for the price of oil, ask the scenario planners at the oil majors? But who is to deprive middle class Indians of their Tata Nano?

And if Asians eat meat like Americans (Chinese today consume about 50kg/capita, Americans 220kg/capita), and own houses like Australians (largest ecological footprint in the world) then the consequences will be catastrophic not just within their borders but for the biosphere too.

Thus it should be clear that Asia, as a latecomer to the model of development which puts a premium on wealth creation at any price, will never be able to attain the standards of living taken for granted by most in the West. Nor should they aspire to it even if they are able to ape the slightly more abstemious Japanese.

Conventional wisdom - of the kind still adhered to by mainstream Western economic thinking - maintains that technology, trade and smart financial tools, combined with a better pricing of externalities, will somehow both end poverty and save the world.

But anyone who thinks that technology will solve such problems is utterly deluded. It’s just plausible - as James Lovelock advocates - that the mass construction of nuclear power stations could generate the energy needed, though some major public concerns over safety and proliferation have to be overcome first.


What this means is that the decisions that determine the world’s fate will take place in Beijing, New Delhi and Jakarta - not Washington, New York or the capitals of Europe.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, Asia’s leaders have an opportunity and obligation to send out a different message - that measures to halt global warming and other pressing ecological concerns, far from being “noble objectives” that can be postponed until the global economy is fixed, as Stephen Roach has said, have to be the priority.

The good news is that few of these leaders really believe that pursuing the Western model of consumption-driven capitalism is the answer to their countries’ development needs. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao articulated this sentiment at Davos this year when he said that the current crisis had its roots in ‘inappropriate macroeconomic policies”; “unsustainable model of development characterised by prolonged low savings and high consumption”; and “blind pursuit of profits”.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online ( Copyright © 2009, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

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About the Author

Chandran Nair is founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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