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A Bright Idea on Development By: James K. Glassman
The Wall Street Journal | Monday, September 09, 2002


As a veteran of too many United Nations environmental mega-conferences, I arrived here a week ago for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in dread of the usual -- a festival of anti-U.S. vituperation dominated by greens and global bureaucrats, with the shameful collusion of pandering businesses. But surprisingly, Johannesburg turned out just fine. Indeed, it may be looked back on as a watershed event, the place where world leaders penned the epitaph to extravagant, unworkable and often damaging multilateral agreements.

Serious Business

The radicals were sent packing. Their pet issue, global warming, was barely mentioned. They were trounced on the most important provision in the 30,000-word concluding text -- energy -- and the notion of setting up a World Environmental Organization to counter the WTO got no traction. "It seems the world leaders are only playing a game, instead of taking the world's problems seriously," said a statement released by the green organization Energy and Climate Caucus when the conference ended. In reality, Johannesburg was very, very serious, which is why the greens were routed.

On Monday, the day when European leaders like France's Jacques Chirac and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder parachuted into the summit to blast the lack of American leadership on the environment, the U.S. scored a stunning victory on energy policy -- with the help of developing nations. Negotiators agreed to a provision that rejected specific targets for renewables like wind and solar power, avidly sought by Europeans. Instead, poor countries said, in effect, that windmills may be fine for the Danes, but what Africans and Asians need is energy that's cheap and abundant, including coal and oil.

In fact, unlike other huge environmental meetings, Johannesburg became suffused with the theme that wealth makes health -- or, more specifically, that it is economic growth that leads to a cleaner, safer environment. In the past, radical greens and their U.N. camp followers had tried to promote a false dichotomy: the concept that nations must strike a balance between economic growth and care for the environment. The term "sustainable development," the focus of the summit, was itself a byproduct of that false choice. But perhaps specifically because the conference was held in Africa, the notion that what developing nations need first is development -- and that environmental progress will follow -- amazingly caught on.

For example, Claire Short, Britain's development minister, warned environmentalists against "imposing rules that prevent poor countries from development." Otherwise, she said, people in those countries can justifiably say to developed nations, "You got your development, and now you're setting rules that make sure we will never be able to develop."

Going into this summit, radical greens wanted to force poor countries to use more wind and solar power, which are expensive and require large infusions of capital. But, in Johannesburg, that approach was rejected in favor of the idea that "energy policies are supportive to developing countries' efforts to eradicate poverty." The conference gave a green light to "efficient, affordable and cost-effective energy technologies, including fossil fuel technologies." In other words, the summit endorsed the use of sources like clean coal. India will get windmills in time, but for now, it needs to get rich as quickly as it can.

You wouldn't have guessed it from the heckling of Colin Powell, but the truth is that the majority of participants here conceded, through their final document, that foolish targets and rules for renewables will only delay economic growth in developing nations and keep their citizens poor. And, naturally, people who live in poverty are far more concerned with the day-to-day demands of food, shelter and clothing. Environmental health is a luxury they can afford only after they have achieved these basic needs. Or, as the late Indian leader Indira Ghandi put it, "Poverty is the worst polluter." The idea is simple, and academic research proves it: Economic progress leads to environmental progress. Once per-capita incomes get to about $8,000 a year, nations start aggressively improving their environments. So, with three-quarters of the world still poor, the best way to clean up air and water is to help make them richer. Studies show that the U.S., Europe and Japan have the cleanest environments while nations like Haiti, China and Bangladesh have the dirtiest. Thirteen of the 15 worst-polluted cities in the world are in developing Asia.

While Johannesburg reversed the trend toward what Steven Hayward and Christopher DeMuth, my colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, call "romantic environmentalism" (the idea that environmental concerns trump everything else), the steps the conference took toward boosting development in poor countries were relatively small ones -- mainly launching public-private partnerships, vigorously promoted here by the U.S. More important would be dismantling European and U.S. trade barriers to agriculture.

The other disappointment at Johannesburg was the behavior of large corporations. When the meeting began, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, an organization of 160 multinational companies, from AOL Time Warner to BP to Zurich Financial, held a joint press conference with Greenpeace to urge governments to ratify and implement the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement the U.S. rejected last year because it was based on shaky science and would almost certainly plunge the world into a deep recession.

No Appeasement

The fact is that Greenpeace and other greens view capitalism with contempt and antagonism (though they are happy to accept corporate greenmail). Sure, business executives should be civil to the radicals -- more civil than the radicals were to Mr. Powell -- but they should also understand that appeasement won't work. Instead, they should make it clear that corporations provide the prosperity that is the foundation of environmental health. Judging from the results at Johannesburg, the poor people of the world understand that basic truth -- even if many business leaders don't.

Mr. Glassman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is host of TechCentralStation.com.


James K. Glassman is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and host of TechCentralStation.com. He is also chairman of Investors Action, a new advocacy organization for America's small investors.


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