Oct 16th 2013

A Better World Is Here

by Bjørn Lomborg

 

Bjørn Lomborg, a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School, is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. 

COPENHAGEN – For centuries, optimists and pessimists have argued over the state of the world. Pessimists see a world where more people means less food, where rising demand for resources means depletion and war, and, in recent decades, where boosting production capacity means more pollution and global warming. One of the current generation of pessimists’ sacred texts, The Limits to Growth, influences the environmental movement to this day.

The optimists, by contrast, cheerfully claim that everything – human health, living standards, environmental quality, and so on – is getting better. Their opponents think of them as  “cornucopian” economists, placing their faith in the market to fix any and all problems.

But, rather than picking facts and stories to fit some grand narrative of decline or progress, we should try to compare across all areas of human existence to see if the world really is doing better or worse. Together with 21 of the world’s top economists, I have tried to do just that, developing a scorecard spanning 150 years. Across ten areas – including health, education, war, gender, air pollution, climate change, and biodiversity – the economists all answered the same question: What was the relative cost of this problem in every year since 1900, all the way to 2013, with predictions to 2050.

Using classic economic valuations of everything from lost lives, bad health, and illiteracy to wetlands destruction and increased hurricane damage from global warming, the economists show how much each problem costs. To estimate the magnitude of the problem, it is compared to the total resources available to fix it. This gives us the problem’s size as a share of GDP. And the trends since 1900 are sometimes surprising.

Consider gender inequality. Essentially, we were excluding almost half the world’s population from production. In 1900, only 15% of the global workforce was female. What is the loss from lower female workforce participation? Even taking into account that someone has to do unpaid housework and the increased costs of female education, the loss was at least 17% of global GDP in 1900. Today, with higher female participation and lower wage differentials, the loss is 7% – and projected to fall to 4% by 2050.

It will probably come as a big surprise that climate change from 1900 to 2025 has mostly been a net benefit, increasing welfare by about 1.5% of GDP per year. This is because global warming has mixed effects; for moderate warming, the benefits prevail.

On one hand, because CO2 works as a fertilizer, higher levels have been a boon for agriculture, which comprises the biggest positive impact, at 0.8% of GDP. Likewise, moderate warming prevents more cold deaths than the number of extra heat deaths that it causes. It also reduces demand for heating more than it increases the costs of cooling, implying a gain of about 0.4% of GDP. On the other hand, warming increases water stress, costing about 0.2% of GDP, and negatively affects ecosystems like wetlands, at a cost of about 0.1%.

As temperatures rise, however, the costs will rise and the benefits will decline, leading to a dramatic reduction in net benefits. After the year 2070, global warming will become a net cost to the world, justifying cost-effective climate action now and in the decades to come.

Yet, to put matters in perspective, the scorecard also shows us that the world’s biggest environmental problem by far is indoor air pollution. Today, indoor pollution from cooking and heating with bad fuels kills more than three million people annually, or the equivalent of a loss of 3% of global GDP. But in 1900, the cost was 19% of GDP, and it is expected to drop to 1% of GDP by 2050.

Health indicators worldwide have shown some of the largest improvements. Human life expectancy barely changed before the late eighteenth century. Yet it is difficult to overstate the magnitude of the gain since 1900: in that year, life expectancy worldwide was 32 years, compared to 69 now (and a projection of 76 years in 2050).

The biggest factor was the fall in infant mortality. For example, even as late as 1970, only around 5% of infants were vaccinated against measles, tetanus, whooping cough, diphtheria, and polio. By 2000, it was 85%, saving about three million lives annually – more, each year, than world peace would have saved in the twentieth century.

This success has many parents. The Gates Foundation and the GAVI Alliance have spent more than $2.5 billion and promised another $10 billion for vaccines. Efforts by the Rotary Club, the World Health Organization, and many others have reduced polio by 99% worldwide since 1979.

In economic terms, the cost of poor health at the outset of the twentieth century was an astounding 32% of global GDP. Today, it is down to about 11%, and by 2050 it will be half that.

While the optimists are not entirely right (loss of biodiversity in the twentieth century probably cost about 1% of GDP per year, with some places losing much more), the overall picture is clear. Most of the topics in the scorecard show improvements of 5-20% of GDP. And the overall trend is even clearer. Global problems have declined dramatically relative to the resources available to tackle them.

Of course, this does not mean that there are no more problems. Although much smaller, problems in health, education, malnutrition, air pollution, gender inequality, and trade remain large.

But realists should now embrace the view that the world is doing much better. Moreover, the scorecard shows us where the substantial challenges remain for a better 2050. We should guide our future attention not on the basis of the scariest stories or loudest pressure groups, but on objective assessments of where we can do the most good.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.
www.project-syndicate.org




 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."
Aug 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Climate change is real, and it is a problem. According to the IPCC, the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2-2% loss in average income. That’s not the end of the world, but the same as a single economic recession, in a world that is much better off than today.  The risk is that outsized fear will take us down the wrong path in tackling global warming. Concerned activists want the world to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But it will mean slowing the growth that has lifted billions out of poverty and transformed the planet. That has a very real cost. "
Aug 20th 2019
EXTRACTS: "It is no exaggeration to say that Johnson has lied his way to the top, first in journalism and then in politics. His ascent owes everything to the growing xenophobia and English nationalism that many Conservatives now espouse................Johnson has chosen a government of like-minded anti-European nationalists. His principal adviser, Dominic Cummings, was described by David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2016, as a “career psychopath.” Cummings is, alongside Johnson, the most powerful figure in the new government; he is an unelected wrecker who earlier this year was ruled to be in contempt of parliament. Fittingly, if depressingly, he now is masterminding our departure from the EU with or without parliamentary approval."
Aug 19th 2019
EXTRACTS: "Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation.................It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I've been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different."
Aug 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Gaslighting typically refers to intimate relationships. It’s a way of controlling someone by creating false narratives – for example, that they are irrational or crazy. If such lies are repeated constantly, victims may get confused and start believing there really is something wrong with them. Confusion, diversion, distraction and disinformation can similarly be used to gaslight an entire society. So how can you tell if you are being gaslighted, and how do you avoid it in the first place?"
Aug 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Trump has once again painted himself into a corner. Since the latest massacres, he’s been at pains to present himself as a reasonable fellow who can get behind gun reform (and perhaps mollify suburban women, his most dangerous foes on this issue). But he’s also noticeably (and typically) anxious to maintain the loyalty of the rural voters who form an important part of his base. Trump has also taken the gamble of using racial politics and white supremacy as instruments for winning in 2020. When faced with the dilemma of trying to assuage suburban voters or keeping the base close, time after time his instinct has been to shore up the base. (That didn’t work very well in 2018.)"
Aug 5th 2019
Extracts: "it is impossible to model many of the most important risks. Global warming will produce major changes in hydrological cycles, with both more extreme rainfall and longer more severe droughts. This will have severe adverse effects on agriculture and livelihoods in specific locations, but climate models cannot tell us in advance precisely where regional effects will be most severe. Adverse initial effects in turn could produce self-reinforcing political instability and large-scale attempted migration........Achieving a zero-carbon economy will require a massive increase in global electricity use, from today’s 23,000 TW hours to as much as 90,000 TW hours by mid-century. Delivering this in a zero-carbon fashion will require enormous investments, but as the Energy Transitions Commission has shown, it is technically, physically, and economically feasible......Added up across all economic sectors, however, it’s clear that the total cost of decarbonizing the global economy cannot possibly exceed 1-2% of world GDP. In fact, the actual costs will almost certainly be far lower, because most such estimates cautiously ignore the possibility of fundamental technological breakthroughs, and maintain conservative estimates of how long and how fast cost reductions in key technologies will occur. In 2010, the International Energy Agency projected a 70% fall in solar photovoltaic equipment costs by 2030. It happened by 2017."
Jul 31st 2019
Extract: "I admire the US for its culture, entrepreneurialism, and universities, and I have many American friends. Furthermore, I know how grateful the rest of the world has to be for US leadership after World War II. Never before had a victorious power behaved so generously toward others, including the defeated. We owe so much to US policy in the second half of the twentieth century. But although I am no declinist regarding American economic, intellectual, and military power, the country’s soft power has certainly decreased, and its positive influence around the world has declined. The reason for this is simple: US President Donald Trump is a bad man surrounded by a bad team of incompetent and dangerous ideologues."
Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "This pattern holds true in every extremist movement I have studied, whether from the past or the present, or the West or the East. This abuse of religion that provides security and certainty to those who are experiencing a loss of control is a universal phenomenon. If merely left there, it would not be a danger. But when it masks a political agenda or when it justifies violence either by groups or state actors, it becomes a danger."
Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "......the day before Mueller testified, the current FBI director, Christopher Wray, told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections.” And the day after Mueller testified, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report stating that Russia would be involved in the next presidential election, and that countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China have the capacity to interfere in US elections as well. Despite these warnings, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked Senate consideration of two bills aimed at strengthening US election security,....."
Jul 15th 2019
".....one of the most accurate recession indicators, known as the yield curve, has recently been flashing warning signs. Every postwar recession in the US was preceded by an inversion of the yield curve, meaning that long-term interest rates had fallen below short-term interest rates, some 12 to 18 months before the outset of the economic downturn."
Jul 6th 2019
Extract: ".........growing poverty even when working, the collapse of stable and safe social identities linked to work, the increasing instability of employment security, and the rapid change of local communities due to emigration, migration, collapsing housing affordability, and redevelopment initiatives that displace communities. These provide precise and urgent electoral rallying points. They are particularly effective given that so many mainstream politicians ignore these basic grievances. In recent years, the lineup of politicians opposing the New Right – Hillary Clinton, the Remain campaign, Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Renzi – have been unwilling to even recognise these structural problems. This provided the New Right the opportunity to appear credible, simply by acknowledging them."
Jul 6th 2019
".........an openly Russophilic administration in the US may be one reason why Putin’s domestic support has been declining so sharply."
Jul 3rd 2019
"Extract: .........in a world of rapidly expanding automation potential, demographic shrinkage is largely a boon, not a threat. Our expanding ability to automate human work across all sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – makes an ever-growing workforce increasingly irrelevant to improvements in human welfare. Conversely, automation makes it impossible to achieve full employment in countries still facing rapid population growth........The greatest demographic challenges therefore lie not in countries facing population stabilization and then gradual decline, but in Africa, which still faces rapid population growth."
Jul 1st 2019
Trump’s personal style – vocal, expertise-averse, scandal-prone and driven by a focus on his partisan base – may be unusual, but aspiring Democratic presidential contenders may be making a serious error in allowing Trump’s “Wizard of Oz” act of big claims and small achievements to pass unchallenged. There is a massive gap between the pledges he made to voters and the reality of an outsider presidency thoroughly co-opted by its party. So far, the “Trump revolution” turns out to be an ordinary Republican presidency.