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The Costs of Attending to Environmental Problems Essay Sample

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The Costs of Attending to Environmental Problems Essay Sample

The need to address current global environmental problems like air and water pollution, degradation of forests, emission of greenhouse gases, desertification, and depletion of biodiversity, is perhaps one that is without contention. The evident results of environmental degradation and pollution leading to climate change with its devastating effects, melting of the arctic ice, extinction of animal and plant species and other serious consequences are not just issues that have taken center stage in the media, but more importantly, they have become an everyday existential reality in the world today. In spite of the obvious need to address environmental problems however, there is a seemingly high cost of such undertaking and this has served as a stumbling block to attempts at addressing the environmental problems facing the world presently, and in the foreseeable future.

Swift (2000) has for instance argued that current environmental regulations in place, though they have had some positive results in bringing about cleaner air and water, and better health, the narrow technological choices employed by these regulations have resulted in unnecessary high costs. The cost of environmental cleanup programs in  closed US military bases as of 1996 alone was estimated to be $3.4 billion and this figure was expected to rise above $11 billion in subsequent years. (United States General Accounting Office, 1996) For developed countries like the US, such expenditures would be manageable, if even costly. However, for many developing and least developed countries where some of the most serious environmental degradations are taking place, investing billions of dollars in technologies aimed at addressing serious problems of environmental degradation is a luxury they cannot afford. Competing developmental, economic, health and educational needs may take precedence over adoption of technologies that are less harmful to the environment.

The current high cost in using new technologies that are more environmentally friendly is again brought to the fore by Swift (2000) who argues that: “Nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants could be significantly reduced if old sources and new sources were not treated differently – as they are under current law – and if laws and regulations didn’t offer significant advantages to selected technologies, placing the highest burdens on the cleanest technologies”. (para. 2)

Sceptics like Singer (1999) have also questioned the consensus that CO2 emissions through human actions have a direct link to global warming. Thus if Singer’s scepticism is anything to go by, one could say that heavy taxes imposed on industries that emit CO2s and new technologies being manufactured to replace high CO2 pollutants are an unnecessary cost. Singer (1999) for instance further argues thus:

“What about the association of climate change with atmospheric greenhouse gases? On the time-scale of hundreds of millions of years, carbon dioxide has sharply declined; its concentration was as much as 20 times the present value at the beginning of the Cambrian Period, 600 million years ago. (…) Yet the climate has not varied all that much and glaciations have occurred throughout geologic time even when CO2 concentrations were high.” (p. 185)

The urgent need to adopt technologies through policy interventions to address environmental problems have however been forcefully argued by the OECD (2008). It is important to note that even if Singer’s scepticism about the link between CO2 and global were true, CO2 emissions are not the only causes of pollution and environmental degradation caused by human activities. Burning of forests for farming and ranching, pollution of water sources and aquatic life with dangerous chemicals and so many other human actions and inactions are to blame for environmental degradation.

According to the OECD Environmental Outlook 2030 (2008) addressing pivotal environmental problems facing the world today – e.g. climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, and the effects of pollution on health – is not only achievable but also affordable. The OECD (2008) projects that adopting specific environmental policy interventions can have a significant impact on some of the environmental challenges (facing the world presently and in the foreseeable future), at a cost of just over 1 per cent of world GDP in 2030. Thus instead of achieving a higher world GDP of 99 per cent, the world GDP would be 97 per cent if environmental policies are factored into economic growth policies. This would result in a one-third reduction of in emissions of environmentally harmful pollutants like nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides.

The costs of policy inaction, it is envisaged, would lead to a global catastrophe by 2050 as a result of increased heat waves, droughts, and floods. The projected growth of greenhouse gases by 2050 would be a further 37 to 52 per cent – i.e. if there are no policy interventions aimed at addressing emissions – and would possibly lead to an increase in global temperature of between 1.7 to 2.4 degrees Celsius above the levels of what pertained in the pre-industrial era.

Other envisaged global effects of policy inaction are a likely extinction of a substantial number of animal and plant species; a 10 per cent increase in the use of farmland for biofuel and food production resulting in an increment in the loss of wildlife habitat; an increase of between 1 billion to over 3.9 billion people experiencing severe water scarcity; and a quadrupling of premature deaths related to ground-level ozone.

In all these projected worsening of human, animal, plant, and environmental conditions due to policy inaction, developing and least developed countries would experience a greater level of the negative effects due to incapacity to cope with the  adverse environmental conditions. This bleak global picture of the projected state of the world by 2030 and the possibility and affordability of addressing it is succinctly summed up by the OECD (2008):

“Without more ambitious policies, increasing pressures on the environment could cause irreversible damage within the next few decades. (…) A policy package to address some of these key environmental challenges could cost as little as a loss of 0.03 percentage points in annual average GDP growth globally to 2030.(…) The cost of inaction is high, while ambitious actions to protect the environment are affordable and can go hand-in-hand with economic growth.”. (pp.6-7)

A study by the Asian Development Bank has for instance found that the damage to the environment in Asia is “staggeringly high” and a failure to address the situation with better environmental policies would, in the future, cause the region to “pay even more dearly for environmental negligence”. (quoted by Richardson, 1997, para.5) The study further found that: “Without conscious shifts in environmental policy, most of Asia will become dirtier, noisier, more congested, more eroded, less forested and less biologically diverse”; and that: “The sustainability of Asia’s prosperity could be threatened”. (quoted by Richardson, 1997, para.5)

In the 1990s for instance, a study found that air pollution in Jakarta, Indonesia, was leading to brain damage in children, premature death, and other general illnesses. The annual financial cost of this pollution cost an estimated $2 billion. (Richardson, 1997)

From the foregoing, it can be argued that if even the costs of addressing environmental problems are high, the cost of inaction to survival of humans, plants, and animals, and more importantly, to the survival of the earth, is a choice that is too exorbitant to undertake.


OECD Environmental Outlook 2030 (summary in English) (2008). Available at www.oecd.org/bookshop/

Richardson, M. (1997) ‘Study Finds Cost of Environmental Havoc ‘Staggeringly High’: Asia Chokes on Growing Pollution’, International Herald Tribune, August 21, 1997, http://www.iht.com/articles/1997/08/21/malay.t.php (accessed on 05/04/08)

Singer, F. (1999). ‘Human Contribution to Climate Change Remains Questionable’

American Geophysical Society, 80, pp. 183-187

Swift, B. (2000). ‘How Environmental Laws Can Discourage Pollution Prevention: Case Studies of Barriers to Innovation’, Progressive Policy Institute, Policy Report, August 1, 2000 http://www.ppionline.org/ppi_ci.cfm?knlgAreaID=116&subsecID=150&contentID=1159

United States General Accounting Office, (1996). Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs, and Criminal Justice, Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, House of Representatives, GAO/NSIAD-96-172

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