In 2017, 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement, promising to try their best to keep the global average temperature from increasing more than 2℃ above pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately, wealthier countries are reluctant to put environmentally-friendly policies into place by playing the blame game: why should they do something about climate change when large countries like China or India are also outputting massive amounts of carbon dioxide? Moreover, some governments of developing countries are also unwilling to undertake action to create environmentally-friendly policies by stating that their developing economy would be hurt by them, which is unfair. But, is this actually true? Do environmentally friendly policies really hurt these economies, or can they create new opportunities for faster economic growth? It is important to analyse each side of the debate in order to decide if eco-friendly policies really damage the countries implementing them or if there can be a profitable and sustainable outcome. In this article, we will look at what countries can lose and what they can gain.

An intuitive distinction about the countries currently violating or opting out of international agreements on environmental policy sees states purposefully ignoring ecological issues to prevail economically, even if their economy could survive with limitations, against states simply unable to develop with environmental restrictions. For instance, countries like the United States willingly loosened their environmental policy against the recommendations of the Environmental Protection Agency in order to maintain a competitive economy. Measures such as this are out of the international community’s control, because a sovereign country can decide autonomously how to manage domestic products according to international law documents such as the GATT. But while it is true that such decisions affect only one nation’s economy, they also endanger worldwide ecosystems, so it is a matter of concern for all nations. 

In contrast, other countries argue that since their economies are still developing, it would be unfair to take away all the technology and leeways that today’s developed countries are used to enjoying. This is the case of China, which is currently the world’s main contributor to air pollution due to high gas emissions. It is clear that Beijing’s priority is to further their economic growth and keep up with the United States at all costs, even when that means adopting a really permissive environmental stance. Indeed, China signed and ratified the Paris Agreement of 2015, pledging to reduce, for example, CO₂ emissions and carbon intensity by 2030.

Despite being in line to achieve these goals, it was calculated by Climate Action Tracker that if every country implemented an environmental approach similar to China’s, the average temperature would increase by 4℃ instead of the 1.5℃ as requested by the Agreement

Of course, these measures allow China to maintain a competitive economy, but also bring about inevitable ecological challenges. Air, water and soil pollution remain, indeed, a severe problem for its population because of the lack of implementation of strict measures. Disruptive human activity such as the construction of the Three Gorges Dam also compromised the local ecosystem, increasing the likelihood of landslides and endangerment of animal species. Many supporters of this project claim that economic benefits brought by the dam surpass the environmental risk, since the dam can provide 3% of China’s energy and at the same time facilitate fluvial transportation. 

When developing countries reiterate their “right to development,” they often interpret it as an excuse to pollute in favour of acquiring higher living standards. However, as the United Nations Association in the UK points out, this is not correct and leads to both environmental detriment and the development of outdated economic systems. Indeed, the institution claims that many developing countries insist on investing in fossil fuels to match developed nations and their economy, when they should instead be focusing on adopting and developing more recent sustainable measures to improve their economy. This way they would not be denied their rightful development but would not worsen the already severe climate change. Following this philosophy, some developing states decided to make the effort to implement innovative ways to increase their well-being and fight climate change. Most of the time, these two factors go hand in hand because environmental conditions have an adverse effect on states’ economies. 

A great example would be India’s current situation. Let us take a look at Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India with a population of about 200 million people. With so many people, the state is highly dependent on agriculture and extremely vulnerable to drought. Extreme droughts are already haunting India, including Uttar Pradesh. States above Uttar Pradesh in the disputed Kashmir region are also heavily dependent on agriculture. The people living there have the disadvantage that their water comes almost exclusively from the Himalaya region. Because of global warming, glaciers are quickly melting, which means that many people will lose their only source of water. The result is that hundreds of millions of people will become extremely vulnerable to losing their guarantee of having food on the table every day.

India is implementing many policies in an attempt to combat climate change, thus trying to prevent environmental disasters from happening. The country is planning to have a 40% non-fossil based power capacity in 2030 and is building one of the largest solar parks in the world. Since the Indian government is lifting more and more people out of poverty every day, putting effort into providing clean energy for everyone is of utmost importance, because the demand for energy in India is expected to double by 2040.

It is not all about climate-related disasters, however. Environmental issues that are typical for developing countries, such as pollution, also have a great impact on the economy of a country. India is no exception here either. About 7% of the annual healthcare budget in India is spent on handling the effects that pollution has on people. Pollution decreases labour productivity, and it has caused 2.5 million people in India to die from pollution in 2015. The Indian government has started to try to fight pollution. The most striking rule that has been piloted has been the Odd-Even rule. This rule, proposed by the Delhi government in 2017, lasted only a week and aimed to reduce air pollution in one of the most polluted cities in the world. The rule stated that cars running with number plates ending on an even number were only allowed to drive on dates also ending on even numbers. Unfortunately, even though this rule drastically reduced traffic congestion, it did not result in a lower pollution level. Luckily, there have also been measures implemented that did work, such as an effort from the government to massively reduce the amount of solid fuel usage for cooking, by improving access to clean fuel for many households.

It is clear that India is doing a lot to prevent drastic climate change from happening. These policies will still, however, give an enormous boost to the rapidly developing Indian economy. With the current plans, India will remain on track. Therefore, the Indian policies are a model for other developing countries to follow.

It will be difficult for developing countries to implement environmental policies when their first concern is about improving the lives of their citizens. This concern leads to dilemmas like that China had with the Three Gorges Dam, where building the dam resulted in a huge energy supply for many households, but also in ecological damage. However, if we look at India, we can see that it is possible for a country to develop itself economically and create a sustainable way of life. As with most things in politics, there are multiple answers to a question (in this instance, whether environmental policy can help the economy). If more states were to heed our words, combating climate change would become much easier and would create more long-term benefits for everyone.

Photo in header by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash