COVID-19 Reframes the Sustainable Development Debate

With nearly 40 million Americans unemployed and over 100,000 dead, the COVID-19 pandemic has generated the fastest economic contraction in modern history, exposing vast inequalities of the global economy, highlighting linkages between public health and economic prosperity and forcing the most socioeconomically disadvantaged to bear the brunt.

This reality is hardly limited to the United States. COVID-19 has become a lesson in the importance of sustainable and equitable development for the entire planet, with outbreaks in one corner of the world disrupting daily life in all others. And yet, as we collectively seek to bounce back from this new recession, there is already immense pressure to put jobs and economic growth ahead of everything else. The current debate over economic reopening in the United States shows the tension between these competing priorities.

Beyond basic necessities like food and shelter, jobs and economic opportunities are supposed to help individuals live better, healthier lives and expand society’s access to good food, clean water and essential services like health care. Both the governments implementing stay-at-home orders and the protesters opposing them understand the importance of continuing economic activity. What is missing from this debate is an acknowledgement of the need to balance economic growth with the physical and psychological well-being of both individuals and communities – and not just in the context of a pandemic.

China’s example

As China’s breakneck economic development over the past several decades shows, this is not always an easy distinction. More than 750 million people in China have emerged from poverty over the last three decades, with the country achieving major gains from education to physical infrastructure and access to health services. This unprecedented accomplishment has nonetheless come at a high cost to the environment and public health.

China achieved its spectacular expansion – averaging 9.3 percent GDP growth rates between 1988 and 2018 – with a strategy based on rapid industrialization and practically no concern for natural resources. That unsustainable approach has resulted in highly contaminated air and water, producing an environmental and public health crisis that threatens both China’s political stability and its future growth. The national death toll from cancer increased 400 percent between the 1970s and 2015, suspected to be a result of air pollution in Chinese cities and water pollution in the countryside.

While the smog-filled air of major cities like Beijing has received plenty of coverage, China’s water pollution crisis receives much less attention. Contaminated water has resulted in an estimated 500 “cancer villages,” rural communities near polluting industries where cancer rates far exceed the national average. The dumping of industrial chemicals, agricultural waste and wastewater has polluted Chinese watersheds so severely that over half of all rivers are unsafe for human contact. Disadvantaged households in rural China, unable to find or pay for clean water, have paid a steep price for the country’s rapid industrialization.

A challenge for rich and poor countries alike

China’s cancer villages are an extreme example of the tradeoffs between economic activity and environmental damage, but they demonstrate what happens when an emerging economy puts the general maxim that “growth is good” above environmental and public health concerns. Striking that balance is an immense challenge in the developing world, where alleviating poverty seemingly dictates exploiting natural resources, developing industries and increasing energy consumption.

Even advanced economies fail to navigate these competing priorities, despite development strategies that involve a range of stakeholders, incentivize businesses to behave in certain ways and enforce policies to protect human and environmental health. This is true even in countries with supposedly exemplary track records in this area, as demonstrated by a recent case in Nova Scotia.

In the mid-1960s, the Scott Paper Company established a $50 million paper milling factory in the Canadian province that would convert wood into finished products. Following provincial and federal regulations, the company conducted and filed an environmental impact assessment. The project was approved, the factory was built and hundreds of locals were hired.

To handle the mill’s effluent, the provincial government facilitated the selection of a site at Pictou Landing, which it had acquired from the Pictou Landing First Nation in what many now consider an exploitative deal. Over several decades, billions of liters of industrial chemical waste were piped into the local water system at Boat Harbour. While the mill brought jobs and tax revenue to Nova Scotia, it also turned the estuary into a toxic waste dump, causing severe health and environmental problems.

A long road to recovery

The rampant pollution sparked strong opposition from the local community, and the mill’s dueling economic and environmental impact divided public opinion. Grassroots opponents staged protests and blockades and political pressure began to grow, and the provincial government, which played a critical role in establishing and sustaining the mill with at least $90 million in loans, ultimately forced its closure with the Boat Harbour Act in 2015, mandating the water treatment site close by January 2020.

After decades of prioritizing the mill’s 300+ direct jobs and 2,000+ indirect jobs, the government of Nova Scotian Premier Stephen McNeil is now faced with decommissioning the mill and cleaning up Boat Harbour. The cleanup alone is estimated to cost more than $200 million (of which Northern Pulp has currently committed $10 million), together with a $50 million transition fund to support displaced mill workers and others employed in the sector with retraining, education and emergency relief. The company responsible, current mill owners Northern Pulp – a subsidiary of Paper Excellence and ultimately of the global paper conglomerate Asia Pulp & Paper – also owes the province an estimated $85 million.

Whether in China or in Canada, the consequences of ignoring public health and environmental stewardship in favor of unsustainable economic development have shown the cure can be worse than the disease. As officials in the United States and worldwide weigh the pros and cons of public health measures and renewed economic activity, they need to remember that a sustainable long-term strategy must find a way to integrate both.

Jeffrey Lamb is a sustainable business consultant currently serving as the chair of Nexus for Development and a consultant with Green Climate Fund and various United Nation agencies on climate change adaptation.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult