Save the World? Solve Poverty
Source: Shepherd (2019)

Source: Shepherd (2019)

This article will cover the recent environmental issues in the West, China, Brazil, Indonesia, water pollution, air pollution, economic inequality, coal, and foreign aid.

I recently went on a cruise around Asia, and I saw two things: an awful lot of cargo ships spewing smoke out of the top, and an awful lot of trash in the Yellow Sea between China, Korean, and Japan. If you stand on the deck of a boat and look out, you’ll see trash in that water. As you leave China and go to Japan, you’ll see the water change from muddy green to crystal blue. If you listen to the news, you’ll hear Greta Thunberg shouting at the U.N., but the people who need to listen simply don’t care what she has to say, nor that some children in the United Kingdom decided to skip Friday’s school.

A Green New Deal has been proposed in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States. They usually place these Western countries as the great criminal in environmental damage, pictures of turtles with straws up their noses (so no more plastic straws for you!) or fish stuck in a beer-can plastic holder (Buy beers in cardboard boxes!), however, the data shows that things are no so simple.

Air Pollution:

Britain has 60 million people. One province (Hebei) of China has less than double that, but produces 70% of PM2.5 air pollution for the entire planet (World Bank, 2019). Most of this seems to be from industrial demand, rather than consumer demand. Regarding reducing carbon, the United Kingdom has already announced that it plans to phase out the remaining 9.4% of coal use already (International Energy Agency, 2019).

Which countries burn coal? Who to blame?

Source: International Energy Agency, 2019

Not the West, despite popular opinion (except Germany, with 42.5% of energy production done via coal, and currently no plans to phase out coal production). China, Taiwan, Turkey, Malaysia, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, Morocco, Russia, Korea, India, and Indonesia (International Energy Agency, 2019). Germany’s Chancellor Merkel said that she plans to phase out coal mining by 2038, but there is no legislation at time of writing, and that is hardly drastic action (Milman, 2019). Australia has also been naughty, with 85% of it’s power coming from coal and gas (Department of the Environment and Energy, 2019). The U.S.? Often accused of pollution? About 27% is coal generated; although natural gas does make up another 35% (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2019b).

Not only that, but in areas such as Malaysia and Indonesia, 150,000 people are afflicted by severe air pollution-caused diseases due to the destruction of the local forests (Channel News Asia, 2019).

Destruction of Forestry:

Most forest fires are started by illegal burnings in order to clear land for farming, for example, in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil now (Channel News Asia, 2019). Indonesia oil plantations have apparently been lax in their keeping of anti-forest fire measures, and that is the 22% who actually bothered to submit the required forms. Yet again this year, fires rage again in up to 5,000 hotspots. 200 companies have been blamed by Indonesian authorities (Bloomberg, 2019).

In fact, the fires that rage this year are the worst (BBC, 2019). Not only Indonesia, but Malaysia has many forest fires started as well (Bloomberg, 2019). Of course, we have to mention Brazil and it’s own burning of the rainforest.  

Why do they do it? Farmers take advantage of the natural fires to cut, burn, and slash away the forestry to expand their own lands, increase their production, and sell more (BBC, 2019). Is it any wonder they do so, when their lives are so poor, and the price of agricultural goods such as oil palm (of which, Indonesia is the largest producer), soybeans (of which, Brazil is the hot new market for China), meat, and so on have increased in desperate demand from China, which we’ve written about in greater detail here.

Sea Pollution:

95% of plastic trash in the world comes from 10 rivers; 8 in Asia, 2 in Africa, according to the journal Environmental Science and Technology (Schmidt et. al., 2017). The U.S. and Britain and Europe giving up drinking their cokes with plastic straws will do nothing to save the oceans.

Source: Schmidt et. al., 2017

Finally, most trash in the sea isn’t consumer goods; it’s mostly fishing gear dropped by fishing fleets (Minter, 2018). We are all sad when we see a fish with a straw in its nose, but it isn’t a major concern in the grand scheme of things; it’s just something we can see in our day to day lives and change to feel better, without really improving the state of things.

Actual Working Solutions:

We have established that it is the poorest countries in the world who are performing environmental damage. Even in Europe, it is Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and and Greece (with Germany being a surprise 4th largest consumer at 42.5% of energy production via coal). 

China is a country which is getting richer. As it does so, we can see demand for cleaner energy increasing at the same time (but not with the same rate) that coal demand is decreasing (International Energy Agency, 2019).

Source: International Energy Agency, 2019

Meanwhile, India shows only an increase in the gross use of of coal, but a general freezing of the percentage of coal use (International Energy Agency, 2019):

Source: International Energy Agency, 2019

What is the difference? It’s the development of the major, poorest parts of their societies that decides whether a country can develop or not do so. Rather than use GDP per capita, I’m going to take the wages of the people most poor, who will be the majority of the people who must use coal power.

Indian workers on average receive 193 rupees (INR) per day, which is about $994US (exchange rate being $1:70.89INR) per year (assuming they work every single day) or $82US per month (International Labour Organsiation, 2018). Not only that, but many Indians have massive household debt which is a rising political issue, further strangling their ability to spend and invest.

Indonesia? They make $2,222US per year, or $185US per month (CEIC, 2018a). No wonder they are trying to develop their forests into workable land.

Brazil? Workers make 2,242BRL per month (CEIC, 2018b). This sounds good until you realise that a decent living wage in Brazil would be around 2,534BRL per month; meaning that the average Brazilian farm worker lives unable to make even a decent living (an average farm worker makes 1,307BRL, almost half of the urban population) (Barbosa et. al., 2016). Not only that, but it’s around $623US per month ($1US:4.07BRL). 

Meanwhile, a Chinese worker in Beijing, with a salary of around $1,230 per month (People’s Daily, 2019), the local government has almost completely cut out coal power, thus allowing the now (mostly) clean skies over Beijing (, 2019). Don’t trust that source? Here is a Western source saying the same, and providing this lovely graph below (VanderKlippe, 2018).

Source: VanderKlippe, 2018

China also has created a Ministry of Natural Resources and in terms of effectiveness for public subsidies, Chinese subsidies for the replacement to newer, cleaner buses, as well as domestic products from coal stoves to gas stoves has cut air pollution in Hebei by 40% over 5 years (World Bank, 2019). Despite all of this; China has made no statement in a recent U.N. session on environmentalism (Milman, 2019). Development in China is not finished.

That said; even China has been building coal plants in the poorer areas of China, away from the urban parts and towards the poorer parts of China that need cheap energy; energy production and consumption has always been part of modern China’s struggle. The poorer parts of China make around $367.58US per year (exchange rate $1:7.1RMB) (Statista, 2018).

Naturally, all of the Western countries that are developing well have much higher levels of income and disposable income. As such, they are not only economically positioned to act more ‘green’, but also have the capital to do so.

 Arrogance and Solutions

Turns out shouting angrily at the U.N. doesn’t work. India’s Modi wouldn’t say he’d stop coal emissions nor anything new really. China declined to even comment. Germany’s Merkel said they’ll do so in about 15 years. Brazil’s Bolsonaro wasn’t allowed to speak. United States’ Trump didn’t comment. Neither Brazil nor the U.S. were selected to speak because they were not going to be positive enough about the movement (Milman, 2019).

Postmodernism is not something I like to indulge in as I believe that the I vs. You mentality it breeds isn’t good for public discourse. Not only that, but there is something of a ‘sins of the father’ aspect to it, that a country now should be blamed for the actions of a government, public, and people who are long-since dead.

But there is certainly an aspect of ‘colonialism’ here; we have the rich, Western countries who have benefited from the conquering of these third world countries, as well as modern interventions in their governments.

We also have the rich, Western countries who have already polluted the world with coal, gas, oil, mass industrialisation, mass use of the natural resources of the world, and pulled themselves into a position of comfort.

When the other countries try to follow in their footsteps, we have countries like France’s Macron declaring that they will no longer trade with countries who will not uphold the Paris accord (like the U.S.-TTIP? Like China? The two largest E.U. trading partners?) and who do not uphold environmental protections (Milman, 2019).

We have, effectively, countries who have already developed telling countries who have not developed that they cannot be allowed to develop; not in the same manner of the first world. They have to magically become first world without exploiting their own natural resources, or they have to remain in third world poverty forever lagging behind the first world. Not only thart, but the world looks away from Germany and Australia who get large amounts of their power from coal; Australia getting 

Why should the third world care what France thinks? Why should China care, when no one is willing to confront it or force it to do anything, when it has 1.4 billion people with a GDP per capita of a third less than the U.S. and a slowing economy as well as domestic issues? Why should India care, with the issues in Kashmir, an economy struggling to kickstart, massive household debt, and a struggle to bring India into the 21st Century? Why should Brazil care, when the world demands they stop developing their own land, but does little to nothing to help?

We have discussed it before; that the Western world will weakly limp a few dollars towards the developing world to help. The International Development Association (2019), associated with the World Bank, offers $22 billion currently, of which, 35% is given to infrastructure. That’s enough to build about 2.5 nuclear power stations (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2019).

However, if you have nearly no money, maybe you’d like to be more efficient with your spending?

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2019a

The above graph comes from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (2019a). Solar power and such are also very expensive; biomass and petroleum are simply far, far more cheap to build, and as we can see below, far cheaper to run by KW/cost to produce.

This is why China is building hundreds of coal power plants across the world; they’re cheap to make, they’re cheap to run. Useful for China (the lender) and for the host country (often poor Asian, African, or Middle Eastern countries) (Inskeep and Westerman, 2019).

The developed world offers $7.7 billion through the International Development Agency for infrastructure; that’s 170,000KW of biomass, or 761,000KW in natural gas (USEIA, 2019). That is enough to run just between two (biomass) to nine (natural gas) lots (similar to neighbourhood blocks) in Midtown New York City for a year, and they expect the entire third world to develop with just this (Sherpa, 2019). The total foreign aid sent across the entire planet in 2017? $147 billion (OECD, 2018).

Source: OECD, 2018

  China’s One Belt One Road alone could reach $1.4 trillion (Council of Foreign Relations, 2019); with the entire World Bank offering about 0.0000000005% of what China alone is offering. The entire amount of foreign aid on the planet? Just over 10% of what China is offering. No wonder that so many countries are turning towards China and it’s One Belt One Road. Not only that, but One Belt One Road doesn’t come with restrictions about gender rights, religious equality, or democracy; it has almost no restrictions at all, with everyone from Thailand to Italy qualified to join.

The idea of governments simply using force to stop it doesn’t seem to work; domestically, China used to use threats to stop people polluting. It didn’t work, people just ignored it or skirted the law.  Indonesia has been threatening enforcement of the law to stop the burning (since 2015); this year is the largest fire yet, and yet there has been little enforcement, according to Greenpeace International (BBC, 2019). The most they’ve seem to have done is seal the land holdings of suspected companies this year (Bloomberg, 2019).

Internationally, France has threatened to stop trade with Brazil if it doesn’t solve the problem now; it has also threatened to stop all trade with polluting countries. The U.N. has begun to refuse representatives whose countries do not provide sufficient plans to improve environmentally from speaking at all; effectively silencing anyone who doesn’t agree with it (Milman, 2019). Neither India nor China nor Brazil will stop polluting because they were snubbed at the U.N.

Bullying and shouting makes people feel big; it doesn’t lend itself to good international relations, nor solutions. The data shows several things:

1) If we want to stop countries polluting, we need to improve our investment into those countries by at least 10x to match China, and more if we want to reduce Chinese influence across the planet (so far, 60 countries).

2) The focus on the West (except Germany and Australia) is simply pointless; the production of pollution comes from Asia. We could stop purchasing Chinese and Indian goods, but see the backlash faced by Trump for doing so via the trade war, and that people prefer buying cheap things over the environment.

3) If we want to stop individuals polluting, we need to provide alternatives for them; either direct transfer payments to improve their lives enough to stop pollution and deforestation, free education or immigration towards differing occupations. Simply screaming at them and shaming them doesn’t solve the problems that cause them to do so.

4) Massive support for countries to compensate them for not using their natural resources; it’s all well saying “Don’t cut down the rainforest”, but when people are poor, what do they care about the French man in Paris? When your population is in poverty, how can you realistically tell them ‘no’ when they try to improve their lives? A government must focus on improving the lives of their people. To quote Keynes, “we all die”, and it’s unrealistic and unfair to expect them to live in poverty so we in the developed world can enjoy one or two holidays per lifetime and see a very colourful frog, and be secure in the knowledge that somewhere is a very important forest in a country we do not live in.

Any conversation about global warming and environmental protection that doesn’t begin with Asia, and doesn’t discuss the rapid sustainable economic development of those countries and populations to some level of parity with the West is not a serious one; it’s demagoguery. We want people to look after their land? 

We need to provide them with the economic motive to not develop their own land; otherwise, they will rationally choose to improve their lives through the improvement of their natural resources, as all European and North American countries have already done, and frankly, as they as sovereign nations have the right to.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, please consider following me on Twitter @LeonDeclis or on Apple News on the Idea Meritocracy channel, or a Facebook page at @IdeaMeritocracyEcon. There is also an RSS feed option on this website for direct updates! Have a nice day!

You may enjoy more about China and One Belt, One Road

You may enjoy reading more about India and Modi

Or perhaps you’d like to read more about the situation between the U.S. and China?


In all articles, I provide as much information for sources as possible, including links. I encourage everyone reading this article to read deeper, and make their own conclusions. For students, links are here so they can read the original source themselves. Most sources are linked the first or second time they appear in the article.

Barbosa, A.d.F., e Silva, M.B., Viega, J.P.C., and Zacareli, M.A. (2016), “Living Wage Report”, published by The Global Living Wage Coalition, retrieved from on 23rd September 2019.

BBC, (2019), “Indonesia haze: Why do forests keep burning?”, published by BBC London, retrieved from on 24th September 2019.

Bloomberg, (2019), “Indonesia blasts its own planters for forest fires as hotspots soar to 5,086”, published by New Strait News, retrieved from on 24th September 2019.

CEIC, (2018a), “Indonesia Monthly Earnings”, published by CEIC, retrieved from on 23rd September 2019.

……, (2018b), “Brazil: Real Average Earnings 2018”, published by CEIC, retrieved from on 23rd September 2019.

Channel News Asia, (2019), “Indonesia arrests nearly 200 over raging forest fires”, published by Channel News Asia, retrieved from on 24th September 2019.

China.Org.Cn, (2019), “Beijing declares success in 20-year fight against air pollution”, published by the Chinese Government, retrieved from on 23rd September 2019.

Department of Environment and Energy, (2019), “Energy Supply”, published by the Australian Department of Environment and Energy, retrieved from on 7th October 2019.

Inskeep, S., and Westerman, A., (2019), “Why Is China Placing A Global Bet On Coal?”, published by NPR, retrieved from on 7th October 2019.

International Development Agency, (2019), “Financing”, published by the Interntional Development Agency, World Bank, retrieved from on 7th October 2019.

International Energy Agency, (2019), “Coal 2018”, published by the International Energy Agency, retrieved from on 23rd September 2019.

International Labour Organisation, (2018), “India Wage Report”, published by International Labour Organisation, retrieved from on 23rd September 2019.

Milman, O., (2019), “Greta Thunberg condemns world leaders in emotional speech at UN”, published by the Guardian, retrieved from on 7th October 2019.

Minter, A., (2018), “Plastic Straws Aren’t the Problem”, published by Bloomberg, retrieved from on 23rd September 2019.

People’s Daily, (2019), “Average salary in 37 major Chinese cities reaches 8,452 yuan: report”, published by People’s Daily, retrieved from on 7th October 2019.

Schmidt, C., Krauth, T., and Wagner, S., (2017), “Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea”, published by Environmental Science and Technology, retrieved from on 23rd September 2019.

Sherpa, S., (2019), “Estimated Total Annual Building Energy Consumption at the Block and Lot Level for NYC”, published by the Sustainable Engineering Lab, based on research by Howard et. al., retrieved from on 7th October 2019.

Statista, (2019), “Minimum wage per hour in China as of 2018, by region (in yuan per hour)”, published by Statista, retrieved from on 23rd September 2019.

United States Energy Information Administration, (2019a), “Construction cost data for electric generators installed in 2017”, published by United States Energy Information Administration, retrieved from on 7th October 2019.

……, (2019b), “What is U.S. electricity generation by energy source?”, published by United States Energy Information Administration, retrieved from on 7th October 2019.

VanderKlippe, N., (2018), “As Beijing's skies clear up, smog descends elsewhere in China”, published by the Globe and Mail, retrieved from on 23rd September 2019.

World Bank, (2019), “China’s Hebei Province Fights for Blue Skies with World Bank Support”, published by the World Bank, retrieved from on 23rd September 2019.

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