History might lead us to believe that they can’t — but is that true for today’s developing countries?

The Beam
The Beam
Jul 23 · 6 min read

An article by Beth Parker

Man in James town, Accra, Ghana. Photo by Dugba Cauley-Hushie

Nearly half the world’s population struggle to meet their basic needs — surviving on less than $5.50 a day according to the World Bank. Although economic growth can increase inequality, it’s generally accepted that it’s vital to improving livelihoods in developing countries. But what does that mean for the environment?

Setting the stage: A recent history of economic development

The last few hundred years have seen the famous ‘hockey stick’ increase in income across many economies — and the associated rise in living standards. For all of the time before this, real incomes had barely changed across the world. This picture started earliest for Britain, in about 1650. Growth for others began much later; from the mid-20th century for China and India.

“Humanity stood atop the slippery slope of fossil fuel usage. We’ve been hurtling down it ever since — and it’s only recently that we started trying to apply the breaks.” — Beth Parker

Despite improved living standards, there are obvious downsides to these periods of rapid and significant growth. Things began to really take off, firstly in Britain and then followed by a number of other countries, as the industrial revolution took hold. Not only was production faster, people were also able to access better products as technologies developed.

But these new technologies required greater inputs to production. Crucially, they needed more energy. This increased demand was met by burning fossil fuels. Humanity stood atop the slippery slope of fossil fuel usage. We’ve been hurtling down it ever since — and it’s only recently that we started trying to apply the breaks.

With the advent of these new technologies and mass-energy use increases came the necessary infrastructure. Factories were built and cities became employment meccas — urban migration increased dramatically.

Rural-urban migration is a common feature of an economy’s development: labour-intensive industries are often relied upon in the early stages of growth and thrive on the abundance of workers drawn in from rural areas. Less productive agricultural work is left behind in favour of more productive, and higher-paid city work. This was evident during the industrial revolution. More recently, China’s miracle growth can be somewhat attributed to rural-urban migration.

Urbanisation and the environment

Population growth is often blamed for humanity’s ever-increasing environmental impact. It’s true that the world population is increasing fast — but while it’s doubling, the earth’s urban population is tripling.

According to the Population Reference Bureau: “Both the increase in and the redistribution of the earth’s population are likely to affect the natural systems of the earth and the interactions between the urban environments and populations.”

Since urban fertility rates are lower than rural, urbanisation is likely slowing population growth overall. But damaging environmental effects are being concentrated in certain geographical areas. Increasing population density in our urban environments is leading to some very serious problems:

  • The energy usage in large towns and cities tends to be high and concentrated: say hello to air pollution and poor water quality
  • Densely-populated areas are bad for plants and animals too: they present loss of habitat and reduced access to clean air and water
  • Waste management becomes a major issue.

To add to this, especially in the most developed economies, service sectors are now booming. We may no longer see the same pull from the manufacturing industry, but workers are now being drawn into cities by lucrative “tertiary sector” jobs. For example, 16% of China’s growth in income per-capita from 1980–2000 is accounted for by the sector change resulting from rural-urban migration.

As the pace of city life accelerates, so does the demand for convenience. I’m sure anyone who works in an office can confirm: the amount of waste produced is unprecedented. To draw on one example, takeaway food is now a major part of many people’s lives — but this results in so much unnecessary packaging, worthless after the few minutes’ walk back to work.

The harmful consequences development has caused are clear. But does economic growth inevitably mean environmental destruction?

Photo by Rodgers Otieno

Can today’s developing countries do it better?

A glance at the historical evidence might suggest they can’t. Currently, developing countries contribute little to global emissions, but this will increase dramatically if these countries grow in the same way as today’s developed economies have.

But there is hope: they may be able to curb some of the potential damage. Green growth — economic development that maintains natural assets, ensuring the sustainability of the environment — could provide the framework to do so.

A report by the OECD highlights that: “The key question is if (and how) environmental goals can be reconciled with growth and poverty reduction in the developing world… these goals can indeed be pursued simultaneously in a mutually-reinforcing way through green and inclusive growth.”

This is a pretty optimistic view. But is it justified?

There are indeed important synergies between poverty reduction and sustainable growth, including more efficient water and energy infrastructure and the development of technologies that are both cost-reducing and environmentally-friendly.

Further, the issue of urbanisation can, in fact, represent opportunities. Demand for efficient energy can allow green solutions to flourish. Urban migration can also be controlled if more jobs become available in rural areas, such as in targeting the management of natural resources. And there are already initiatives in place paving the way at the intersection of green and urban.

Cause for optimism #1: Green Cities

Thanks to a public-private partnership, Dhaka in Bangladesh has seen great improvements in its waste management, a city that was previously burdened with poor waste capabilities and high population growth.

The partnership is with WasteConcern, an NGO that works to increase recycling, and in doing so creates jobs for the poor. In the five years between 2001 and 2006; 986 jobs were created each year, 124,400 tonnes of waste were processed and compost sales raised US$1.1 million.

In Brazil, in response to its urbanisation — 85% of its population resides in cities — the Minha Casa, Minha Vida programme was established. Not only has the programme provided housing for 9.6 million poor families, but sustainability is also a priority. Around 224,000 families across the country have been able to shower using solar water-heating systems.

Cause for optimism #2: Energy

Turning to the energy predicament, Jamaica adopted its National Energy Policy in 2009 and is leading the Caribbean towards sustainable energy solutions. The country doesn’t have its own petroleum resources, and therefore relies heavily on imports, with 95% of its electricity being sourced from petroleum-based plants. It can, therefore, benefit from further expanding its already ambitious renewable energy goals: its policy targets a 30% renewable energy share by 2030.

The Gyapa stove project in Ghana not only prevented two million tonnes of CO2 emissions in its first 10 years — the stoves are more efficient than traditional ones — but has also saved 4.1 million people more than US$84 million in fuel costs.

What have we learnt?

I have focussed on two major challenges that development poses: urbanisation and increased energy consumption.

The ways the UK and other developed economies grew and affected these two channels as a result don’t provide particularly shining examples of how to curb environmental damage alongside economic development.

However, we have seen that there is hope for our developing countries. Many are already implementing ‘green growth’ projects — with just a few examples drawn upon here — that are both good for the environment and people’s livelihoods. These countries have the opportunity to continue to develop in much more sustainable ways than the industrious means of the past. And I believe that they can continue to do so with the right initiatives and incentives.

Beth Parker is from Wales, studied Economics at University College London and currently works on a tech project as a consultant in London. Topics close to her heart include international development, sustainability and women’s empowerment.

This article was published in The Beam #9 — Voices from the Global South. Subscribe now to read more.


Covering the energy transition and the race to a zero carbon economy.

The Beam

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The Beam

The Beam unites the changemakers and innovators in the Global Climate Action movement to amplify their voices. United People of Climate Action. thebeam@the-beam


Covering the energy transition and the race to a zero carbon economy.

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