Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nice try, China

Perhaps it's post-colonial guilt. Or just intellectual laziness. In any case, it is surprising how everyone seems to have accepted without question the claim by China, and other poor countries, that it's unfair to expect them to meet binding caps on greenhouse gases. The argument is that rich counries got rich while having a cavalier disregard for the environment, and now we should let the poor countries catch up and not expect them to pay for our sins.

But let's ask this question: in the game of economic development, is it better to have the first move or the second? Suppose that you are a poor country today, facing some restrictions on your economic growth because of past environmental degradation that you didn't cause. Now you're given option B, the chance to develop in a world with a pristine environment and no restrictions. Would you take it? Before you answer-- there's a catch.

The catch is that if you take option B, you must begin your development from a point when no one has yet invented railroads, telegraphs, telephones, electric light, electric power, metal ships with mechanical propulsion, cars and trucks, steel mills, international accounting standards, vaccines, moving assembly lines, bulldozers, airplanes, computers... In other words, you must begin from where the U.S. and Western Europe were at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

No one would accept a deal like that. Why, just to get up to where the rich countries are today would take, well, centuries.

The point is that poor countries can raise their standards of living much faster than the rich countries did, because they can simply adopt technology developed, slowly, by the rich countries. I'm not saying that rich countries did this to help humanity, or that poor countries should thank them profusely. Far from it.

I'm just saying that there are a lot of advantages to moving second in this game, and that those advantages seemingly far outweigh the costs of increased environmental degradation and curbs on development. So if the poor countries are willing to use the benefits of the West's economic development, they should accept some small part of the costs.

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