Tricky Trade-Offs in Sustainable Development Policy Making

According to the latest estimates, more than 10 percent of the world population is living in extreme poverty and are not able to meet their basic human needs. They suffer from starvation, lack of clean water and healthcare. Another billion people are below the relative poverty line, which means that they are not able to participate in society, have an extremely low life expectancy and do not have access to education or opportunities to improve their lives (Haslan, Schafer, Beaudet, 2017).

To me, these numbers are devastating and call for immediate action. A widely accepted theory is that economic growth is the key to development, mainly through industrialization and increased production.  This is argued to create jobs and increase the GDP of a country, and consequently reduce poverty, increase investment in education and healthcare and thus increase overall well-being of the population. Although this approach in many cases to some extent does result in the desired outcomes, there exists a paradox in this solution.

The central paradox in development is that: “Economic growth is needed to achieve well-being, the process of economic growth leads to environmental degradation, which in turn reduces well-being” (Haslan, Schafer, Beaudet, 2017). A great example of this paradoxical relationship between development and the environment is the case of China. Namely, over the past two decades, China has experienced major development, mostly in the form of industrialization. Though this has at first led to increased well-being and to a certain extent reduced poverty, these developments also have led to major environmental destruction. Not only is China currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, it also suffers from serious water and air pollution. In many places, air pollution has reached such critical levels that it has become one of the countries major causes of death (Haslan, Schafer, Beaudet, 2017). This clearly shows the fact that economic growth not always leads to increased well-being as environmental destruction causes the reversed effect.

Some economists argue that the relationship between development and environmental destruction take the shape of the so-called Kuznets Curve (EKC), see figure 1. The EKC theory suggests that during the first stages of development a country generally has an increasingly negative impact on the environment, after a certain point, however, this relation flips and the country will naturally reduce and even reverse its impact and increase its sustainability. For example through a shifting focus towards innovation and novel, green technologies. Hence, advocates of the EKC believe that the solution to environmental degradation and pollution caused by economic growth is simply more economic growth. Though this theory has been highly influential in development policy making, the validity of the EKC has been criticized.


Figure 1: Kuznets curve

First of all, it has been argued that most developing countries have only been able to decrease their national emissions by importing most of their resources from and exporting their emissions intensive labor to less developed countries. Moreover, for many kinds of environmental degradation, the EKC theory does not hold. Biodiversity loss and the depletion of natural resources, for example, are both irreversible impacts, which both cannot be solved anymore by the time a country has finally reached a certain stage of growth. These impacts leave lasting consequences to the future generation. However, one could wonder why should a country that is struggling with meeting the needs of its current population worry about the needs of the future generation.

The answer to this question depends on what you believe should be prioritized: first development or first sustainability? The major two views in policy making with regard to this dilemma are called intra-generational and inter-generational thinking. Intergenerational argues that we should care about the future generation, they argue that:

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our grandchildren”.

In his famous book, Our Common Future Brundtland (1987) defines the concept of sustainable development, which also has an intergenerational basis: “Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the future generation to meet their needs”.

Intra-generational thinkers, on the other hand, argue that it is fairer to prioritize the needs of the current living generation over those of the future. Developing countries should spend their limited amount of available money and resources on adaptation and cheaper development tactics to improve the lives of their population as quickly as possible instead of spending it on expensive, innovative technologies. They simply do not have the money to both worry about the present and the future generation. Should the Western, developed countries help them with covering both needs?

A possible, sustainable alternative to the EKC approach is called leap-frogging. This means that a developing country increases it’s GDP in such a way that it is able to skip over the emissions intensive development stages and jump straight to a sustainable situation, see figure 2. Rural Africa presents some good examples where they went from no access to the electricity at all to green mini-grids. This is a major improvement from both a development and an environmental perspective. This, however, is rather expensive. So as mentioned before, for many developing countries this is a heavy trade-off between expensive technologies that will improve the lives of the future generation or money and resources for adaptation to protect the current needs.


Figure 2: Leapfrogging 

An arguably more fair approach would be to make the Western countries partially responsible for the realization of the leap-frogging of developing countries. First of all, because the West has been able to enjoy a cheap, heavily polluting industrial revolution which has brought them major development and welfare. While the currently developing countries have contributed significantly less to the current state of climate change and are the ones who suffer the most from the impacts.  Moreover, you could argue that as Brundtland stated the current and the present needs should be met, however, the West goes far beyond meeting the needs of its population, through mass consumption, overproduction, and useless material goods.  Should the developed countries maybe spend their wealth surplus to more long while goals such as the sustainable development of the Global South?

I believe that it would not only be fair but also beneficial to all parties if the West would financially support the developing world to leapfrog to a better and more sustainable future.


Haslam, P. A., Schafer, J., & Beaudet, P. (2017).Introduction to international development approaches, actors, issues, and practice. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press Canada

4 thoughts on “Tricky Trade-Offs in Sustainable Development Policy Making

  1. I totally agree with you on the fact that the Global North carries a lot of responsibility towards the development of the Global South (and of course also the fact that they haven’t been able to develop the way the Global North did). I also believe that it would be “fair” – BUT: we need to start asking ourselves how we can get the countries of the Global North to do that. If developed countries can’t even keep their promises to reduce their own emissions and most importantly, if they don’t see the point to do so, the case seems hopeless to me.


  2. I agree with Charlotte, we have to think about how developed countries should be insentivized. interestingly enough “leapfrogging pollution in developing countries” is one of the topics for the Environmental committee during AUCMUN in April. As chair of the Environmental committee I have recently completed the study guide for the conference, and was therefore required to research this topic.
    It is interesting to note that the UN is actually investing time and energy in helping developing countries leapfrog. United for Efficiency (U4E) is a public-private partnership led by the United Nations Environment program UNEP. Their main focus is on promoting product efficiency through education and assistance. If you’re interested in the development around leapfrogging you should look them up! However, as I understand they only provide expertise and not finance… so money may still be the key issue. Bottom line is: they could potentially play a key role in convincing developed countries to invest in the sustainable market transformation of the underdeveloped countries? What do you think?


  3. Your blog raises an important issue: sustainability is often placed within a binary opposition, an either/or-approach. In this case, in the minds of many, sustainability and development are mutual exclusive, which has led to inter-generational and intra-generational thoughts. As you point out, one trade-off in between these two views of supposedly opposing priorities could be leap-frogging, ideally financed by developed countries. Picking up the questions raised in the previous comments, how can these countries be motivated to do so? You stated in the end of your blog that the financial support would be “beneficial to all parties”. What are the benefits for the present developed countries? It would definitely be helpful to have us acknowledge the benefits to convince us.
    But there are three issues that speak against this to take place:
    Firstly, taking into account the non-identity problem, it is not even certain that it would be “fair” if developed countries paid for the decisions that have brought particular generations into life. However, with a wide-identity-dependent view it can be argued that a developing country has experienced harm by the developed countries in a way that impedes meeting its needs in a national context.
    Secondly, since we are dealing with economic dynamics, partnerships are difficult to aim for because individualism dominates, whereas self-transcendence and the willingness to help would be needed.
    Lastly, the economy in the developed countries are often taken for granted and economic activities are considered decoupled from developing countries. Thus, developed countries do not identify themselves with developing countries. This may cause a lack of empathy and of motivation to help.

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  4. Katja,

    The Kuznet’s curve describes how environmental degradation may be at it maximum at intermediate wealth. However, an argument could also be made that both extreme poverty and extreme wealth leads to environmental degradation (albeit of a very different nature). This would be almost the inverse of the Kuznet’s curve. E.g. extreme poverty could lead to slash-and-burn practices in the tropical rainforest in order to grow enough food, or to burning wood and cow-dung in a small enclosed space, causing soot emissions. Extreme wealth often leads to a large ecological footprint via consumption (air travel, private pool, big car, big house, big steak, etc). As you allude to in your post, the Kuznets curve may apply more so for “classic pollution” problems (e.g. air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution) and less so for “planetary boundary-type” problems (biodiversity, climate change, natural resources)?


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