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Economic and Environmental Priorities

By Najib Saab, Issue 38, May 2001

President George W. Bush announced last month that the United States has repealed the Kyoto Protocol for diminishing climate change emissions, and said that he will not allow for any commitments that might hinder the progress of US economy. Despite resounding protests from all over the world against the United States’ blatant disregard of international laws, President Bush was adamant in his belief that the United State’s economy is by far more important than other people’s wellbeing.

We had thought that such a crude attitude towards economy and environment, which was common 25 years ago, had become a thing of the past, until President Bush put it into circulation again.


It is well known that confirming to the Kyoto Protocol requires decreasing gaseous emissions, especially carbon dioxide, that are caused by the burned fuel of industrial plants and transportation vehicles. This in turn requires producing alternatives for fuel and industrial and transportation technologies that produce lesser emissions. Whereas these measures will diminish the dangers of climate change and stop the increase of world temperature, that might also mean an increase in production costs on the short run. However, past experiences have shown that industries, pressured by a political decree, can adjust their methods and come up with alternative processes, and deal with them as a fait accompli. For example, 20 years ago it was unforeseen that chlorofluorocarbon products, which cause ozone depletion, and are used in refrigerators and air-conditioners, could be successfully substituted worldwide. As yet, the economy suffered no catastrophe because of that! In fact, the very opposite might be true, since adopting new appropriate technologies will create new job opportunities, an increase in production and ultimately a surge in the economy.


It is true however, that effective procedures to decrease carbon dioxide emissions will incur modifications in the methods of production and manufacturing, and this might cause a decrease in economical progress temporarily. Yet, if the environment were to be treated as merchandise when setting national production rosters, environmental regulations will no longer be a losing venture.


The United States’ recent view might be based on the assumption that the US will not be among the countries affected by climate change. Projections show that the regions to be affected in the first stage are small islands and low coastal regions that will be flooded when the temperature rises and polar ice melts. Does the US really believe that it will have enough time to learn from the catastrophes of others and then try to figure out solutions? Could it be possible that after the problem of world temperature reaches such extremes, the US alone will be able to avoid the catastrophe? Environmental problems that have international impact cannot be solved except by the cooperation of all those concerned, since the oceans and the skies are not designated by borders. Even though the repercussions of increased world temperature will not affect the US early on, it remains the leading country that is causing this phenomenon, since it emits 25% of the total of carbon dioxide emissions, while it constitutes only 4.5% of the world population.


One of the main points of disagreement is the United States demand that the laws of emission reduction be applied to poor developing countries, without providing them with enough aid to change the production processes. If this demand is to be adopted, it would mean that developing countries will stay poor and technologically ill advanced, whereas the technologies of advanced countries were established, over the past years, by using cheap and polluting production processes. However, many other advanced countries are not in agreement with the United States, and poor countries should cooperate with them to develop a firm stand that will not permit the injustice of making developing countries pay the price for cleaning the environment, as they had been made to pay the price of destroying the environment through excessive consumption of natural resources, to satisfy the western industrial machine.


We hope that the American attitude that prioritizes the economical interests of major companies over sustainable development will not set an example to be followed by other countries. We have noticed recently in Arab countries some of those who are demanding a period of respite where priority would be given to development and industrial production while disregarding the environment, in order to increase income levels and follow in the foot steps of advanced countries. On the other hand, there are those who demand that firm environmental sanctions be adopted in the Arab region, similar to those adopted by industrial countries, but without taking into consideration development needs and particular socio-economic situations.


Both attitudes are rejected. It is inconceivable that we should seek to repeat other’s mistakes that destroyed the environment by claiming that since we will always be able to put our hand in a cast, why not break it! Rich countries might have the ability to maneuver and delay the adoption of specific environmental protection measures, because they have the material and technological ability to solve some of the ensuing problems at a later date. However, developing countries lack this ability, and neglecting environmental protection is construed as gambling with their own future.


As for the “environmental extremists” who adopt emotional views, such as refusing to cut any tree or establish any factory, they too have missed the fact that people’s life is the main concern. That is why we might have to agree to limited environmental damage on the short run, if it was necessary to the people’s wellbeing and if it could be rectified in the future.


The struggle between environment and development can be worked out by setting our priorities and categorizing our concerns according to certain criteria, such as: irreparable damage, health hazards, and the quality of life. Whereas any development venture that could lead to irreparable damage in resources should cease immediately, as should be stopped any polluting activities that constitute a health hazard and even death, according to their degree of danger; in return, we can overlook some development activities that might have negative repercussions on the standard of luxury and the quality of life, if they were needed to eliminate poverty and hardship. The aim of these activities could be considered as a sort of preparation for people to participate in protecting the environment, which in a self-sufficient society becomes a way of life, not just an intellectual luxury.


The apparent contradiction between economy and the environment can be resolved by adopting a transitory system of priorities, that will insure balanced sustainable development.

Arab Environment in 10 Years
ARAB ENVIRONMENT IN 10 YEARS crowns a decade of the series of annual reports produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) on the state of Arab environment. It tracks and analyzes changes focusing on policies and governance, including level of response and engagement in international environmental treaties. It also highlights developments in six selected priority areas, namely water, energy, air, food, green economy and environmental scientific research.
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