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The Copenhagen Consensus and Global Warming

The Copenhagen Consensus and Global Warming: Refreshing Winds of Change


By Jeff Bradley

The world is faced with many problems. Environmentalists want us to believe that global warming is top of the list. In fact, Al Gore in his highly publicized documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” even went so far as to warn humankind that “We have just 10 years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tailspin."

But really, in what way and where in the world can we do the most good if the world could muster an extra budget of US$75 billion? These are the questions that Deforestation Watch has always been mindful of in our quest for a better world. Just what separates the nub of the problems confronting the world from the hype, which appears to be the exclusive purview of many so-called “environmental organizations”, many with relatively undeserved environmental pedigrees such as Greenpeace, FOE, Wetlands and Mongabay.com?

Eight leading economists, including five Nobel Laureates, were asked to prioritize 30 different proposed solutions to ten of the world's biggest problems Using benefit-cost analysis, the panel of experts arrived at an interesting conclusion – The number one priority should be supplying the micronutrients, vitamin A and zinc to 80 percent of the 140 million children who lack them in developing countries is ranked as the highest priority by the expert panel at the Copenhagen Consensus 2008 Conference. The cost is $60 million per year, yielding benefits in health and cognitive development of over $1 billion.

The proposed solutions were developed by more than 50 specialist scholars over the past two years and were presented as reports to the panel over the past week. Since we live in a world of scarce resources, not all good projects can be funded. So the experts were constrained in their decision making by allocating a budget of an "extra" $75 billion among the solutions over four years.

Number 2 on the list of Copenhagen Consensus 2008 priorities is to widen free trade by means of the Doha Development Agenda. The benefits from trade are enormous. Success at Doha trade negotiations could boost global income by $3 trillion per year, of which $2.5 trillion would go to the developing countries. At the Copenhagen Consensus Center press conference, University of Chicago economist Nancy Stokey explained, "Trade reform is not just for the long run, it would make people in developing countries better off right now. There are large benefits in the short run and the long run benefits are enormous."

Nobelist and University of California, Santa Barbara economist Finn Kydland noted that unless the economies of developing countries grow, they will still be mired in the same problems of poverty ten years from now as they are today. "By reducing trade barriers, income per capita will grow, enabling more people in developing countries to take care of some of these problems for themselves."

The remaining top ten priorities addressed problems of malnutrition, disease control, and the education of women. For example, the number three Copenhagen Consensus priority is fortifying foods with iron and iodized salt. Two billion people do not have enough iron in their diets which results in energy sapping anemia and cognitive deficits in children and adults. Lack of iodine stunts both physical and intellectual growth. More than 30 percent of developing country households do not consume iodized salt. Correcting these mirconutrient deficits would cost $286 million per year. The other seven of the top ten solutions include expanded immunization coverage of children; biofortification; deworming; lowering the price of schooling; increasing girls' schooling; community-based nutrition promotion; and support for women's reproductive roles.

Take solution number seven, lowering the price of schooling. Nobelist and Chapman University economist Vernon Smith emphasized that this solution is not about lowering the cost of schooling, but reducing the price faced by poor parents who have to choose between sending their kids to school and having them work to supply household income. Ways to reduce the price is to supply vouchers or channel more public funds to schools. When Uganda cut school fees by $16 per year (60 percent), enrollment nearly doubled, with most of the increase in enrollment being girls. Smith pointed out that research shows that educating girls increases average productivity more than does educating boys. The cost for this proposed solution is $5.4 billion per year.

So what proposed solutions are at the bottom of the list? At number 30, the lowest priority is a proposal to mitigate man-made global warming by cutting the emissions of greenhouse gases. This ranking caused some consternation among the European journalists at the press conference. Nobelist and University of Maryland economist Thomas Schelling noted that part of the reason for the low ranking is that spending $75 billion on cutting greenhouses gases would achieve almost nothing. In fact, the climate change analysis presented to the panel found that spending $800 billion until 2100 would yield just $685 billion in climate change benefits.

Noting that he has been concerned about climate change for 30 years, Schelling argued that tacking climate change will take public policy responses such as carbon taxes to address the issue. Schelling added, "The best defense against climate change in the developing countries is going to be their own development." He explained that funding education to create a literate labor force boosts the productivity of a country enabling economic growth. Economic growth produces wealth that helps people address and adapt to the problems caused by climate change. Bjorn Lomborg, head of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, pointed out that funding research and development of low-carbon energy technologies is ranked at a respectable number 14 out of the 30 solutions considered.

So the actions of Greenpeace, the Friends of the Earth, Wetlands and Mongabay.com in accusing palm oil of every ill from deforestation to destruction of orang utan habitat right down to global warming can be consigned to the dustbin of environmental history for the alarmist bluster and babble that it really is.

Also low on the list of priorities are proposals to reduce outdoor air pollution in developing country cities by installing technologies to cut the emissions of particulates from diesel vehicles. Other low ranked solutions included a tobacco tax, improved stoves to reduce indoor air pollution, and extending microfinance. These are not bad proposals, but other proposals were judged to provide more bang for the 75 billion bucks available in the exercise.

In the view of Deforestation Watch, the Copenhagen Consensus process is certainly not perfect. However, its use of benefit cost analysis is sensible and helps concentrate the attention of policymakers, charitable foundations, and members of the public on the relative urgency and costs of the world's big problems. As the final press release quotes economist Finn Kydland, "It's hard to see how one could do any better in terms of coming up with a well-founded list of where to start for the purpose of the betterment of the dire conditions in much of the rest of the world." What a refreshing change from the hype that we are used to getting from Greenpeace, FOE, Wetlands, Mongabay.com et al. What refreshing honesty in dealing with the world’s problems!

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