The environment not only provides the substance and space for economic activity but also is the container of castoff produced by human activity. Economic growth not only improves people’s life quality but also brings several environmental problems, such as air pollution, water pollution, soil degradation, desertification and more.

The traditional path to development

The issues of development and poverty reduction have been on the focal point of debate through most of world history. In the beginning, the ‘third world’ made use of decolonisation in an attempt to bring about economic and social progress, yet it failed. At the same time, European and North American states experienced unprecedented increases in productivity due to the industrial revolution. Over time, economic disparities among the poor and the rich widened.

Development is commonly seen as a synonymous with economic growth and is also used as the answer to reducing poverty. Governments, therefore, seek the stimulation of economic growth on the basis of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.

According to the traditional view, development follows a linear path as is reflected in western countries, from pre-industrial, agricultural-based economies to industrial and mass consumption societies. To find the best effective way for economic stimulation, developed economies have followed a market-oriented approach. In the case of developing countries, they are to follow the same framework and turn into ‘developed’ states sooner or later. Basically, in order to achieve development, the poor should imitate the rich.

The dilemma and global common goods

Especially developing countries suffer from the tension between development and environmental protection. But, among the many frustrations, they come up against, perhaps none looms larger than the worst development outcomes. Poverty, inequality, and deprivation, are often found in those countries with the greatest natural resource endowments. 

For instance, the vast majority of rainforest is located in developing countries, which face the moral duty to protect and guarantee the quality of life in the present and in the future. In a further step, all countries are affected by economic activities that take place in other countries making environmental processes of an intrinsically transnational character. Meaningful progress on the environmental agenda, therefore, must be at an international and global scale. Also, global public goods such as the air, sources of water, and rainforests are of interest to the entire globe. These goods are non-exclusive, in essence, no one can be excluded from their benefits or avoid the negative effect in case of absence of the goods. Reasons why the public demand for environmental protection has intensified. Global population, governments, and NGO’s urge developing countries to mitigate pollution due to the clear increases in their production along with the negative externalities.

However, poor states also contain the vast majority of the world’s poor population. Given the development framework, governments are to reduce or eradicate poverty as fast as possible. Who would like to live in deprivation conditions a little more? Fossil fuels are still the cheapest, most reliable energy resources available for low-middle income states. Hence, when a developing country wants to build a functional economic system and end poverty, it turns to fossil fuels. These economies are dependent on its natural resources, exporting raw materials for example. Countries using low developed technology can consume more resources and pollute more which is typically a feature of poor states. Developing countries currently cannot sustain themselves, let alone grow, without relying heavily on fossil fuels. Furthermore, the weather fluctuations and consequences of climate change are already impacting food growth in many of these countries.

The right to development is recognized by the United Nations since 1986. Following the right, governments of poor states defend the extraction of natural resources with the argument that rich countries have already gone through it to grow. They pose why they should sacrifice growth to tackle climate change, a problem caused mainly by rich countries. In this sense, countries with more possibilities must encourage and facilitate development and eradicate poverty. Some alternatives have been provided, wealthier countries develop cheaper forms of energy, and developing countries can take advantage of the new technologies. Another alternative, powerful economies should provide monetary incentives to developing ones to absent from natural resources exploitation and use capital investment in social programmes like free education or health.

Nowadays, aspects like national interests, conflicts among developed and developing states or ideological obstacles impede effective international cooperation. Yet, countries should not forget that we are in the same boat.