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March/April 2010

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Editors' Picks - March/April 2010

World Development Report 2010: The Impacts of Climate Change

World Bank, World Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2009), 417 pages. Boxes, figures, maps, tables.

The World Bank's World Development Report (WDR), issued annually since the late 1970s, continues to be an invaluable resource for professional researchers, the policy community, and a worldwide public concerned with issues of economic and social development. As with prior editions, the most recent WDR takes up a key developmental theme—the perplexing dilemma of climate change—for focused and expansive treatment. Earlier volumes accorded particular attention to population, agriculture, poverty, infrastructure, market institutions, and numerous other topics, including—in the 1992 edition—an earlier spotlight on “Development and the Environment.” Limited by an obviously less robust analytical and empirical base, the latter nonetheless pointed to both greenhouse warming and stratospheric ozone depletion as cases creating “special problems for policymakers with limited resources who must decide how much to devote to addressing known threats to present populations and how much to uncertain and irreversible hazards to future generations” (p. 61).

Unsurprisingly, even as the organizing thread of the most recent WDR, climate change is intimately connected to a range of particular developmental topics—demographics, economic growth, human well-being, energy and natural resources, international financial assistance—and these are impressively captured in the volume both in the form of expositional text as well as a rich array of graphic and tabular presentations. The undertaking reflects the capabilities of the many contributors—from within as well as outside the Bank—who brought it all off. (A document with such heft and length requires an accommodation for time-deprived readers or those whose principal need is for a summary treatment of the subject. A 37-page “Overview” meets that need effectively.)

As the major, if not sole, harbinger of the consequence of growing greenhouse gas emissions, energy accounts for a large share of the volume's content, with a particular effort to define fuel and power pathways over the next half-century or so that are consistent with no more than a two-degree Celsius growth in global temperature. That is the approximate tipping point that an emerging scientific consensus perceives to be the temperature zone beyond which the impact of global warming enters dangerous territory. There is therefore extensive discussion on how the global energy system, complemented by sound forestry management, offers the prospect and opportunity to pursue that climatic goal through a combination of cost-effective conservation, use of renewables and nuclear power, and breakthroughs in carbon-capture-and-sequestration so as to neutralize continued reliance on fossil energy. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1 The full portfolio of existing measures and advanced technologies, not a silver bullet, will be needed to get the world onto a 2°C path CO2e (gigatons)

Figure 1 The full portfolio of existing measures and advanced technologies, not a silver bullet, will be needed to get the world onto a 2°C path CO2e (gigatons)

Whether or not it is fair for the WDR to cite the 2008 financial meltdown as symptomatic of “unrestrained” markets in general, it is hard to quarrel with the document's judgment that “[c]limate change requires public interventions to address the multiple market failures driving it—the failures of pricing; of research and technology development; and of coordination and collective action, global, national, and local. As providers of public goods and correctors of externalities, governments are expected to address these market failures” (p. 330).

All fine and good. But let's keep in mind that there are numerous instances where, when government does intervene—say, through price controls or subsidies—that it is frequently for populist reasons or for purposes other than the enlightened and benevolent ones the WDR points to. An oil-producing country that sets the domestic price of gasoline at a small fraction of the implicit world market price is doing no favor to either sound environmental or economic management. The report's authors hardly need to be reminded of such situations. But perhaps even in a report that, for the most part, is admirable in “telling it like it is” (or like it should be), publicly pointing fingers at the more egregious country examples of this sort meant straying into political waters serving no useful purpose.

It's no doubt the case that public-policy initiatives and intervention in the energy field, and other areas closely related to global warming, can never be wholly shorn of constituency and short-term political pressures that undermine, rather than promote, the goal of long-term environmental integrity. To judge by the divisive wrangling over energy and climate-change matters in the U.S. congress during 2009, and then at the end of the year, the tepid aspirational measures embraced at Copenhagen, a successful balancing act between these contending forces remains, for now, very much a work in progress.

- Joel Darmstadter

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