Chapter Summary

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students will be able to:

  • Explain the difference between communal and global environmental issues and classify specific issues as one or the other
  • Describe the impacts on development of communal and global environmental issues
  • Describe the criticisms proposed by analysts who take issue with some of the more alarmist environmental predictions
  • Apply these concepts to analyze the environmental issues and choices faced by Indonesia

Chapter Summary

This chapter focuses upon environmental quality and its impact on development. Communal environmental issues are discussed first, then the problem of anthropogenic climate change.

Things like clean water, trees and land are environmental assets that are natural capital: they are important both as an amenity but also for economic production. They are susceptible to depletion because they are common pool resource that benefits everyone but no one can be excluded from. This creates a situation illustrated in the tragedy of the commons. The cost of depletion is absorbed by the entire community, while the benefits of its use accrue to individuals.

Water is one natural resource subject to depletion. Water is used most often for agricultural purposes. Problems arise when more water is withdrawn from rivers, lakes and aquifers than can be naturally replenished. A second problem arises when water is degraded through pollution. Human waste, often untreated, finds its way into the water supply in many LDCs. Industrial effluent, runoff from agriculture and household trash also pollute water sources. An additional danger is that as aquifers empty, they can become saltier, making the water unfit for many purposes, including human consumption.

Air pollution is another example of natural resource degradation. Motor vehicle emissions and industrial air pollution can create health problems such as lung infections, cancer and asthma. Land can also be degraded through deforestation, often leading to soil erosion. Deforestation also contributes to global climate change by removing carbon sinks.

Environmental problems tend to become worse in LDCs as they experience economic growth, a pattern known as the environmental Kuznets curve. As countries then proceed to higher income status, they can invest more in environmental protection, thereby reducing destruction. Part of the reason for this is that both governments and households view environmental protection as a luxury that a developing country (or struggling household) cannot afford. This destruction is sometimes encouraged when governments subsidize inputs, like water for agriculture, where it became much cheaper to waste than to conserve.

Even when countries have environmental laws, they are not always enforced. Sometimes underpaid officials accept bribes; other times the government simply does not have enough capacity to enforce these laws. Because property ownership is also frequently uncertain in LDCs, it means that even private property owners lack incentives to impose measures or invest in ways that preserve its productivity for future use.

Globalization is also sometimes blamed for environmental degradation in LDCs. Many of the dirtier industries have been exported to LDCs. Additionally, LDCs face increasing population pressure on water and land and have inadequate policies and infrastructure to deal with issues capably.

One explanation of LDC underdevelopment, according to some analysts, is the Malthusian trap, where population growth outstrips a country’s ability to provide food or have access to other needed resources. Population pressures are seen as preventing sustainable development, i.e development that does not put at risk future generation’s ability to satisfy their needs. These Neo-Malthusians therefore emphasize dealing with population problems as a priority for development.

Critics of this approach emphasize that Malthus was wrong in his day because he did not foresee the technological and scientific developments that would increase food production and provide for development of Western Europe; these critics contend that similar developments can bring development again to LDCs. They point to the Green Revolution as a recent example of increasing food yields and to other near-term technologies such as desalinization which may make salt water useable for agriculture and human consumption. These critics also contend that the peak years of population growth in most LDCs are past.

The global environmental issue discussed in the chapter is the emission of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) leading to climate change. LDC development is likely to increase GHGs in the coming decades, hastening the impact of climate change.

Analysts predict that LDCs will be burdened with about 80% of the economic costs of climate change. Mitigation costs aimed at reducing GHG emissions could include taxes on fossil fuels to discourage their use; this could potentially result in slower development in LDCs and are likely to be unpopular. Adaptation costs caused by measures necessary to live with climate change, are also likely to be substantial. New weather patterns may lower crop yields, lead to an increasing number of climate shocks and result in an increasing area of disease prevalence (by moving the malaria line for example); this will require more expensive agricultural inputs, re-engineering to adapt to hurricanes and flooding and more money spent on treatment for and inoculation from diseases. Both of these types of costs will burden economies and lead to productivity costs. Finally, displacements and migration of people will likely occur, sometimes leading to conflict.

On the other hand, other analysts claim these dire predictions are exaggerated. Whatever the costs of climate change, they note, LDCs will be in a much stronger economic position to deal with because they will have experienced substantial economic development by the time the impacts hit; this is because the climate change scenarios are predicated upon the increased GHG emissions which would come from LDC development. They also argue that technological improvements such as geoengineering may allow LDCs to escape many of the predicted consequences. In addition, they point out that many studies fail to account for the positive effects of increased urbanization which is likely to limit the carbon footprint of LDC societies.

The chapter concludes with a case study of Indonesia, which is the world’s third leading emitter of GHGs. Indonesia’s deforestation, despite national laws prohibiting the practice, contribute to global change. Analysts predict Indonesia will be particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts that will increase the country’s disease burden and lower agricultural output.