Environmental Issues in Developing Countries

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Many of the environmental problems in developing countries are directly related to poverty (See box “Poverty and Wealth”). For people who lack safe drinking water, have inadequate sewage systems, and live in unsanitary conditions, conservation measures and environmental issues are one of the last things on their minds. Only when they achieve simple means of subsistence and have sufficient resources to afford thinking about other problems do they become interested in long-term health issues and consequences of environmental pollution. Most of these countries are heavily in debt and therefore any attempt at conservation and environmental protection must be linked to economic development and debt relief. Unless richer countries are willing to subsidize poorer countries to carry out environmental programs, the situation will deteriorate even further and the environment will suffer. Debt relief does not have to come as a handout, however, and could require the debtor country to spend equivalent money in their local currency on environmental programs such as family planning, water sanitation, land remediation, air quality improvements, etc. This is particularly important, in light of the fact that, as developing countries become more affluent and undoubtedly emulate the living standards of the developed countries, their environmental footprints becomes larger.

Another powerful tool to promote environmental protection is international marketable permits. Under this plan, once the target for reduction of a certain pollutant is set, a fixed number of permits are issued and distributed among developing and developed countries. Developing countries have incentive to maintain their environment and, by doing so, they will have additional permits that they can exchange for cleanup equipment or upgrade their old and dirty technologies with newer clean technologies. Developed countries can buy the permits to avoid penalties and find new markets for shipping clean technologies. For example, a country can trade one million tons of carbon dioxide (for example by switching from coal to natural gas) for a shipment of wind turbines, photovoltaic cells, or consulting expertise for increasing crop yields without the need for additional fertilizers.

The same goes for population control. In many poor countries, larger families provide a safety net that can help at times of sickness and old age. Children can provide labor and bring in additional income. Because the infant mortality rate is higher, parents seek to have more children – especially males – to assure enough of them survive to maintain minimal living standards and to carry on their genes. It might be argued by some that a reduction in infant mortality rate will increase population which will, in turn, exacerbate the problem. This is what happened in 1950s and 60s when improved health conditions, better nutrition, and vaccinations saved the lives of millions of babies, resulting in a population boom in many poor countries. The data also shows that after the initial surge in population the growth rate declined. This is attributed to better access to education, less pressure to have larger families, and an increasing allocation of family resources to improving the quality of life of fewer children. It now appears that proper family planning is one of the best strategies and is an economically sensible way to address a wide range of global environmental problems in poorer countries.

Due to the absence of popular and democratic governments in many developing countries, especially in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, environmental problems continue to become increasingly severe. International businesses have great incentives to collaborate with corrupt officials to pass laws that are inherently in conflict with the principal of conservation of these countries’ natural capital. It is therefore fair to conclude that protection programs are possible only if they involve the full partnership of the host countries monitored by international teams of economic ecologists and consultants. Only those technologies that result in a more equitable distribution of wealth, eliminate or reduce poverty, make education and health services accessible, result in the least damage to the environment, and produce work can benefit these countries and are sustainable.


(1) Toossi Reza, "Energy and the Environment:Sources, technologies, and impacts", Verve Publishers, 2005

Further Reading

Chapman, D., Environmental Economics: Theory, Application, and Policy,” Addison-Wiley, 2000.

Goodstein, E. S., Economics and the Environment, 4th Ed., John Wiley & Sons, 2002.

Siebert, H., Economics of the Environment: Theory and Policy, Springer Verlog, 2004.

Dauvergne, P., Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2005.

Journal of Environmental Economics and Management (JEEM), the journal of Association of Environmental and Resource Economics.

Ecological Economics – Direct Science Elsevier Publishing Company, the journal of the International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE).

Environmental Economics and Policy Studies – Published by Springer-Verlog, New York is the official journal of the Society for Environmental Economics and Policy Studies.

External Links

US Agency for International Development (http://www.usaid.gov/)

National Center for Environmental Economics (http://yosemite.epa.gov/ee/epa/eed.nsf/pages/homepage).

United Nations Development Program (http://www.undp.org).

United Nations Environment Programme (http://www.unep.org).

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (http://www.ipcc.ch).

World Resource Institute (http://www.wri.org)

Union of Concerned Scientists (http://www.ucsusa.org).