Is it possible to protect the environment when many countries require increasing amounts of energy to progress?


In today’s world, where world population, industrial production and economic growth are surging at breakneck pace, energy consumption is expanding and mankind’s insatiable desire for energy, arable land and natural resources are both depleting natural resources and damaging the environment. I believe that economic progress today necessitates mankind’s utilisation of the Earth’s resources and damage of the environment. However, I believe that it is possible to both enjoy economic progress and protect the environment at the same time, especially with advances in alternative energy technology and a greater involvement of the public, government and public firms in the protection of the environment.

There is, largely, a false dichotomy between economic progress and protecting the environment. This is because, among other reasons, of the availability of alternative sources of energy – not that of crude oil or coal – which can power industries and drive economic progress while protecting or doing only minimal damage to the environment. Such technology includes nuclear energy, which use does not emit carbon and where by-products can be stored underground without damage to the environment. Other forms of alternative energy also include that of wind and solar energy, where although some might seem prohibitive and capable of providing only small amounts of energy, may actually allow entire towns to be powered if harnessed and distributed efficiently. This is the case of Saint Daid’s, a town in Southern Wales, which successfully leveraged on such technology to reduce its household carbon footprint to almost zero – a testament to how technology can allow an economy to function and progress while protecting the environment at the same time. However, despite the efficacy of such technology, I conceded that alternative energy sources are no panacea for today’s trade-off between progress and the environment as yet and this is why the world still consumes 85 million barrels of dirty-burning crude oil today. This is because alternative energy sources are still, in general, not as cheap as drilling for oil and hence are not widely adopted. However, I believe that in the near future, with today’s pace in the advancement of alternative energy technology and in order to circumvent the predicted disaster of oil running out by 2050, alternative energy will become cheaper and widely used to the point that it drives economic progress while protecting the environment at the same time – a very possible eventual outcome.

Another reason why I believe that protecting the environment and economic progress is possible and become ever less mutually exclusive is the increase in environmental awareness and desire to protect the environment, whether for altruistic reasons or for self-interest. Today, 30 percent of paper and plastic waste in the United States of America (USA), as stated by the U.S. Environmental Agency, is recycled. This is despite the fact that recycling is often a low profit margin business that requires government subsidies to operate. A 30 percent recycling rate is an achievement that shows how a government can push for both progress and environmental protection at the same time with enough political will. Also, air travel, the bloodlines of the world economic machine, is beginning to become cleaner with the foray of firms such as France’s Climat Mundi, which encourages air travelers and gives them a medium to compensate for the carbon they had caused to be emitted during their flights. This is done by paying an extra but small sum over the air ticket’s price, which then goes to fund tree-planting events and to replace the dirty-burning wood stoves of poor Sub-Saharan Africans with cleaner electric or petroleum stoves. Of course, dissenters would say that such schemes only apply to altruistic people and governments which are few and far between. However, I believe that such choices are increasingly becoming ones that are made based on self-interest as people are feeling the negative effects of environmental damage. For instance, in October 2008, well after the Olympic and Paralympic Games concluded, Beijing re- imposed car quotas because it was in its interest to reduce pollution levels to protect people’s health and to attract tourists and investors. Thus, I believe that self-interest and altruism are, more than ever, leading to “green” decisions being made which protect the environment while not or insignificantly inhibiting economic progress.

The final reason why I believe progress and environmental protection may go hand-in-hand is that of the system of Capitalism and the desire of businesses to maximize profits. The increase in environmental consciousness and the desire of consumers to purchase “green” products and cleaner cars have led to a paradigm shift in markets where companies are now incentivized to produce green products or to sponsor green movements. Companies such as Toyota and Honda have taken advantage of such a change in drivers’ preferences by creating smaller, cleaner cars and hydroelectric cards, leading them to “progress” and turn profits while protecting the environment at the same time, unlike Ford and General Motors, which gas-guzzling cars have led them into business losses in the order of billions of U.S. dollars in 2008. Appearing green is also a trend for companies which are in the service sector. Wall Street research firm Standard and Poors has concluded in 2008 that “green” corporate citizenship adds profits to a company’s balance sheet. This could explain why highly respected Wall Street firms Goldman Sachs and the Bank of America have been sponsoring environmental reform projects in China, ensuring that they do not provide loans to illegal loggers and promoting themselves as “green banks”. Thus, it is seen that capitalism and businesses’ inherent desire for profits can and is increasingly leading to firms both progressing and protecting the environment at the same time. The environmentally sustainable growth of businesses could quite possibly be the wave of the near future.

I believe that it is possible to protect the environment while striving for economic progress, notwithstanding the latter requiring increasingly more energy to accomplish. This, though, is contingent on the fact that the development of alternative energy sources and the increase in environmental consciousness among people, governments and businesses are sustained at the current pace. To do this, I would suggest that more weight be placed on the advice given by the United Nations (UN) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to include the developing nations in Annex I of the Kyoto Protocol and for more countries to adopt the European Climate Exchange’s system of pollution permit trading. With that, the possibility of economic progress and environmental protection will be increasingly close to being realized.