United Nations Environmental Assembly Meets in Kenya

Rick RybeckAreas such as climate change, pollution, land degradation and access to water effect people all over the world, regardless of their country. The first United Nations Environmental Assembly opened in Kenya this week, with over 150 high-level delegations present. According to the Associated Press, “The weeklong event involves the examination of the intersection between global economic process and the environment.”  Delegates plan to discuss issues such as smart grids, alternative energies and new options for transportation.

Zintro expert Rick Rybeck, Director of Just Economics, LLC shares his thoughts about the assembly:

The intersection between economic progress and environmental quality is inescapable. We rely on the earth not only for raw materials, but also for the very essentials of life – clean water, clean air and clean soil. Contamination of any of these can imperil our prosperity and possibly even result in our extinction. In some places, reliance on traditional agricultural techniques has resulted in relatively simple and sustainable economies for thousands of years. Nonetheless, these economies are often elementary and fail to provide adequate access to clean water, adequate food and health care.

In other places, revolutions in agricultural and industrial technologies have vastly multiplied the consumption of resources along with the production of products, pollution and waste. Some pollution is toxic and has immediate adverse impacts on workers, nearby residents and other species. In some cases, wastes produce cancers or other adverse health effects that are noticeable only after many years. Some wastes, such as greenhouse gases (GHG), have grown exponentially over the past two hundred years. Although GHG are typically not “toxic,” they are inducing climate changes that are likely to have catastrophic impacts on many species and human communities.

There are many reasons why economic “progress” and environmental stewardship have not yet been integrated. One of the key factors is that many producers are allowed to dispose of their waste into the air, the water or the land at little or no cost. Private producers reap profits while communities (and other species) bear the costs. As a result, too much waste gets produced because waste production and disposal are “subsidized” by these “economic externalities.” The world could make great strides towards more sustainable and benign economies if these economic externalities could be “internalized.” Fortunately, there are several ways of doing this.

REGULATIONS: Some regulations have been effective in eliminating or reducing the indiscriminate discharge of regulated substances into the air, water and land. As a result, polluted air and water resources in some industrial centers have been rehabilitated and restored.

FEES: Pollution fees and user fees can also encourage conservation. In some cases, this approach has converted waste products from one producer into resources for another. In other cases, fees motivated a re-engineering of production processes to eliminate toxic inputs or outputs. Some communities practice “value capture” whereby publicly-created land values are returned to the public sector, rather than ending up as windfall profits for landowners who are lucky enough (or shrewd enough) to own the best-served sites. This helps make public infrastructure financially self-sustaining.

Value capture can also take the profit out of land speculation. Land speculation inflates land prices and encourages urban sprawl — which depletes resources, wastes energy and degrades both air and water quality. Thusvalue capture can promote more compact development that reduces pollution while preserving rural land for agricultural, conservation & recreation purposes.

The world community is paying more attention to the degradation of the environment by economic activities. The World Bank, the United Nations and others are seeking to integrate economics with environmental protection and stewardship. Some people hope that technological advances will solve our environmental problems. Certainly, there is a role for technology to play. However, unless we revise the economic rules by which resources are owned, processed, consumed and disposed of, technology alone will not be capable of saving us.

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