Development and the Environment

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. We are faced now with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late…We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: Too late

Martin Luther King Jr. ‘Where do we go from here: chaos or community

Now perhaps more than ever before the intrinsic linkages between development and the environment are increasingly apparent and consequently have become a major focus of research and comment. It is a truism to state that human activities have both a direct and indirect impact on the environment at a variety of dimensions. We not only rely on the earth’s resources, ecosystems and climate to provide many key resources and services for survival but also to assist with growth and development. A key debate insists that if we fail to safeguard the environment which enables human development, then social, economic and even political progress (however defined) becomes threatened and this threat ultimately affects the poorest and most vulnerable the most.

This debate captures the fundamental principle of underpinning sustainable development – ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs’. If climate change continues unmitigated, then sustainable development becomes almost an impossibility.

The Earth’s natural resources and its natural eco-systems provide the world with essential services such as air and water purification, soil generation, the pollination of crops etc. It is these natural systems which help stabilise climate and support the world’s ecological systems, for example, changes in climate are likely to reduce bio-diversity. If forests are converted into other forms of land cover (roads or other infrastructure), this will tend to increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which, in turn will lead to further changes in the climate, which can then effect other elements of the environment such as water resources.

Development goals are threatened by climate change, with the heaviest impacts on poor countries and poor people. Climate change cannot be controlled unless growth in both rich and poor countries becomes less greenhouse-gas-intensive. We must act now: country development decisions lock the world into a particular carbon intensity and determine future warming

World Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change.

According to recent reports from both the World Bank and the UNDP, climate change actually threatens to reverse development gains already achieved. By neglecting our natural environment in pursuit of growth – through the over use of natural resources, including fossil fuels – people are already exposed to the impacts of climate change and become more vulnerable to natural disasters. In developing countries, these impacts may not manifest themselves as catastrophic events watched by the rest of the world; instead they impact on the effort of the world’s poor to try and better their lives and the lives of their children through increased exposure to drought and extreme weather conditions – directly affecting their livelihoods.

Some key challenges in development and environment – Issues to consider:

  • Energy Demands
  • Population Growth
  • Consumption Patterns
  • Water Demands


Increased industrialisation will lead to increased energy use. Currently fossil fuels are the primary source for almost 80 percent of the industrial world’s energy.

  • Is it expected that the use of fossil fuels, and therefore GHG emissions, will also increase with industrialisation?
  • Natural oil and gas reserves are limited – will all of the oil and gas be extracted from the earth to meet demands – is there an alternative? Maybe: natural oil and gas reserves are finite – what happens when we have exhausted all the earth’s supply?
  • Will agricultural land be used to produce biofuel rather than food crops?

Population Growth

Over 50% of the world’s population is living in cities and this figure is constantly increasing.

  • Will agricultural land and natural habitats be lost to urban development?

Consumption Patterns

  • Will developing nations adopt the same consumption patterns of developed countries? What will this mean for the environment?
  • How would increased consumption affect the environment?
  • How can the earth sustain all countries reaching a level of consumption found in the First World?

Water Demands

Not only is water required for daily uses such as drinking and cleaning, water is required in the production of goods. Water footprinting has been developed as a method of measuring how much water is used in the production of goods. Some examples include:

  • 1 cotton shirt = 2,700L
  • 1kg of tomatoes = 180L
  • 1 glass of wine = 120L
  • 1 hamburger = 2,400L

Increased production and consumerism of goods is associated with increased development. If more goods are being produced this will require the use of more water. Consider the following challenges:

  • Worldwide 884 million people do not have access to an improved source of drinking water. Can countries become more developed when people do not even have access to clean drinking water?
  • In several countries of Sub-Saharan Africa one in four people take over 30 minutes to make one water collection, round-trip. How can countries become more developed when so many people are forced to spend so much time simply gathering water?

In areas of drought, people are limited by the amount of water available to them. In Ethiopia there is an average of 38 cubic metres of water storage capacity per person, compared to almost 5,000 in Australia. How are countries with water scarcities become more developed?

In order for development to continue, without further damaging the earth, a culture of managing our natural resources sustainably needs to be urgently debated and agreed. There is widespread agreement, from a variety of diverse sources that the exploitation of non-renewable resources must be reduced and the use of alternatives must be expanded in order for sustainable development to be realised.

For the United Nations Development Programme, the challenge is clearly urgent and related directly to human development:

Climate change demands urgent action now to address a threat to the two constituencies with a weak political voice: the world’s poor and future generations. It raises profoundly important questions about social justice, equity and human rights across countries and generations.’

Human Development Report 2007/2008: Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World.