It is possible to save the planet and enjoy healthy economic growth

Will China and India realise that they can improve living standards on a different model from the US or Europe?
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The Independent Online

The question – are economic development and the protection of the environment inevitably in conflict? – is haunting the world like that cloud of pollution over much of southern and south-east Asia. For if those two goals are indeed mutually incompatible then humankind faces a desperately difficult century.

The question – are economic development and the protection of the environment inevitably in conflict? – is haunting the world like that cloud of pollution over much of southern and south-east Asia. For if those two goals are indeed mutually incompatible then humankind faces a desperately difficult century.

We know that the world's population will continue to rise for another 50 years at least, rising from the present 6.2 billion to at least 8.5 billion, maybe more, before it stabilises. If it does not continue to rise the concerns are almost more disturbing, for it would mean that something dreadful had happened to mortality rates.

We know too – or rather we can see a strong trend – that growth is likely to continue in the world's two most populous countries, China and India, at a rate of somewhere between 5 and 7 per cent a year.

This growth is bringing real and welcome increases in the living standards of a decent proportion of the people in both countries, though the benefits are still most unevenly spread. But it is also responsible for the pollution.

Put population and economic growth together and in the short-term at least you create pollution. And pollution does not just make life nastier and less healthy for the people in the region where it is generated. It affects the whole world.

Just this week the satellite images of the giant smog cloud over the Indian subcontinent and most of South-east Asia have focused attention on the fact that this pollution is contributing to the change in weather patterns that seems to be taking place globally. That is not to try and blame Europe's wet summer on industrial development in China. But it is to acknowledge that the change in the global climate that is taking place is not just the result of random fluctuations, it is because of human activity. You cannot prove this, I accept. But the evidence has become pretty overwhelming.

The reaction of people to such evidence depends very much on their political prejudices. We will see a fair variety at the forthcoming environmental summit in Johannesburg next month – the one that Michael Meacher, is going to after all.

There will be the attacks on the usual suspects, as many people in the environment business like to use America's high energy as a stick with which to beat the US. So be it – there are plenty of anti-Americans around. Just don't expect the States to take any notice until the US political establishment is convinced that it is in the country's self-interest to adopt more effective policies to encourage energy conservation.

There will also be a defence by developing countries of their own environmental practices. Why, they ask, should they now have their growth impeded by having, for example, to curb carbon emissions, when their per capita emissions are still much lower than those of the West? All they are doing, they would argue, is following the pattern of development established by countries farther up the ladder.

Meanwhile single-issue lobbyists will be using these summit discussions to promote their causes. There will be people who want to cover Britain with windmills; there will be the wave power lobby and the (rather better funded) nuclear lobby. There will be those in favour of genetically modified food, promoted for its higher yields. Add in the high levels of hypocrisy that such events generate – all those thousands of people flying thousands of miles to protest about the damage aircraft do to the ozone layer – and it will clearly be a dispiriting occasion. People talk green but act brown.

In any case the go-for-growth behaviour of most of the world is supported by that apparent wrong-headedness of the arguments advanced by the Club of Rome. It is now 30 years since its famous report, Limits to Growth, was first published. It was a huge success, selling 12 million copies in 37 languages worldwide, and its basic message – its warning of a catastrophic economic collapse as a result of pressure on resources – shocked a generation. Yet its dire predictions self-evidently haven't happened and the book is now mocked for its forecast that the world would run out of oil before 2000.

Except that it didn't say that – that conclusion was misinterpretation of one of its graphs, which simply showed the ratio of known reserves of several commodities to current consumption. Back in 1972 there was indeed less than 30 years' supply of oil in known reserves. But of course more would be discovered every year.

The most publicised general conclusion was that unless there were changes in the way the world economy was organised and that these were in place by 2000, it was likely that there would be a collapse in the planet's ability to meet the needs of humankind some time before 2100.

There was also another conclusion, one that has received much less attention. This was that it would indeed be possible for the world to reach an environment and economic balance, where everyone could have decent life without unsustainable burdens on world resources.

Though we are 30 years into the future as seen from 1972, we are still a long way from the catastrophe that the Club of Rome predicted for later this century. The first conclusion could still be right, if we don't change the way we organise our lives. But what about the second? What chance is there of making progress towards the sustainable, balanced future envisaged by the Club of Rome?

This is what really matters – not the bitching and accusations of which I fear we are going to hear a great deal in the coming weeks. There seem to me to be two main things to look for in the coming months that will give us some clues as to whether the concerns aired at this first environmental summit of this millennium have any chance of being met.

One is whether there is any sign of social or political change in the US towards energy use. There are the strongest practical reasons for the US not to want to rely on imported energy, particularly since most of it comes from one of the world's least stable regions, the Middle East. But actually what will change American attitudes is not the practical argument but socio-political changes in people's habits. At last US society is realising that bigger is not better in food: huge portions of fast food rubbish just make people ill. Could that attitude spread to energy use? My hunch would be eventually, but not for a while yet.

The other thing is whether China and India show any signs of realising that they have an opportunity to improve living standards on a slightly different model from that of the US, or even Europe. For example, by pricing energy correctly or by encouraging more sensible farming practices than the subsidy-fattened Western farmers, they can gain a comparative advantage over the present developed world. My hunch there is that something is stirring – the realisation that these countries can be cleverer than we have been – and that in a funny way that cloud of pollution may have positive effects.