The question is whether or not developing nations should be permitted to harness their natural resources to lift their people out of poverty. Many rich-nation delegates, particularly from Europe, say “no” as they fear such development will exacerbate climate change and ecological degradation.
But an alliance of nations stretching from Asia to Africa is resisting European pressure to slow their development. They are right to do so.
Here’s the issue. Many developing nations need to clear some of their forest land in order to develop their economies. They plant agricultural crops, and harness those resources for global trade. This is part of the same early-stage growth pattern adopted by every major developed economy in the world, from the United States to France, England, and Germany, even Denmark where the climate summit is taking place.
But some developed country representatives are dismayed that countries, from Malaysia to Uganda, are taking some of these same development steps. And they are proposing rules be adopted at Copenhagen to prevent Asian and African nations from developing in a similar manner.
Their stated concern is that clearing forests harms biodiversity and emits carbon into the atmosphere, worsening global climate change. And so the EU has argued against conversion of forest land to any other use should be a key principle in the fight against climate change.
But there are several problems with their position.
For starters, it is rank hypocrisy. Germany once had one of the world’s great arboreal forests but it cleared much of it as it became an industrial powerhouse. German forest lands have never fully recovered. The same goes for much of the rest of Europe.
Meanwhile, many developing countries have learned from the earlier mistakes of developed countries and have taken courageous steps to avoid repeating them. Malaysia, for example, has set aside half of its land to be preserved, an unprecedented act of conservation. Uganda is one of Africa’s success stories as it has embarked on a major conservation programme that has kept much of its land pristine and out of the reach of development.
But this is not enough for the European diplomats who have targeted one product in particular – palm oil. They claim that palm oil development harms the environment by threatening native species, such as orangutans, as well as contributing to the climate crisis. Neither of these claims withstands scrutiny.
Palm oil is a multipurpose product that is used to produce everything from food to fuel. Indeed, it is in its role as an increasingly important and highly efficient biofuel that palm oil has raised concerns in the capitals of Europe.
As the developed world wisely looks for other sources of energy to wean consumers off a reliance on petroleum, biofuels have become a favoured alternative. Europe itself has become a major producer, growing rapeseed in its agriculturally rich regions and processing the oil produced by these plants to power cars and generate electricity.
But palm oil has some distinct advantages over biofuel made from rapeseed, in particular it generates around 10 times the amount of energy that it consumes in production, compared to a ratio of just 3 for rapeseed oil. In this way it has a much smaller land footprint. As a low-carbon alternative to coal and petrol, and given its relatively small environmental footprint, palm oil is actually quite useful in the global fight against climate change.
Of course, palm oil’s enormous efficiency advantages have European producers nervous. And so in the face of agricultural fuel competition from abroad, the European Union has restricted imports to protect its domestic and politically powerful subsidised producers. And now they are pressing their case in Copenhagen, advancing trade protectionism under the banner of environmental concern.
But delegates from developing countries are too smart to be duped by this tactic. They see the naked hypocrisy on display and take it for what it is – a brazen attempt to protect domestic vegetable oil producers from competition coming from Asia and Africa.
The bottom line is developing nations should be able to use their own resources to their own benefit, just as wealthy Westerners have been able to do throughout history. Developing countries need to be permitted to trade the products they have freely with consumers who want them and not have meddlesome bureaucrats gathered in northern Europe get in the way.
The people of Asia and Africa have shown a willingness to protect their environments and their native species as they help their economies grow. They deserve nothing less than respect and applause from their European counterparts.
Richard Tren is the director of Africa Fighting Malaria and Franklin Cudjoe is the executive director of the IMANI Center for Policy & Education in Ghana. They write frequently on aid and development issues.