By Siddhartha Mitra and Raadhika Paul
Gro Harlem Brundtland, who served as Norway’s prime minister for three terms at the end of the 20th century, also chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development, which in 1987 came out with an influential document known as the Brundtland Commission Report (BCR).
The main messages of the BCR was simple: poverty is a major cause for environmental degradation as the poor live off the environment much more than the non-poor. The message attracted a lot of positive attention as one international organisation after another stressed that poverty alleviation could offer environmental salvation. The Brundtland report also laid out reasons to support its message, mainly the inability of the poor to pay for clean fuels such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for the purposes of cooking, lighting and heating.
Gradually, however, a counterview emerged but it was largely ignored by the international bodies. This new view focused on the affinity of the non-poor for gasoline consumption and their greater capability to use mechanised means to extract limited natural capital, access to which was available to everybody. It could be argued that while the poor were compelled because of their low income and wealth levels to live off the environment, the non-poor were better able to harvest natural capital for marketing its products.
It was also pointed out that it was the non-poor who were responsible for unregulated dirty industrialisation in developing countries, made possible by collusion with political interests. Finally, it is often forgotten that the large number of consumer durables and appliances owned by the rich are sourced from natural capital; their diets rich in milk and meat are often made possible by industrialised animal rearing, which contributes immensely to methane emissions.
Quantitative attempts to verify the truth of the Brundtland hypothesis, necessitated by this debate over who takes the blame, are few and there seem to be none for India, which accounts for a large chunk of global poverty. To make up for this deficiency we used household data on monthly consumption of four carbon emitting dirty fuels—firewood, coal, charcoal and coke—from the National Sample Survey to examine the truth of this hypothesis. The data for three years separated by long intervals of time—1987-88, 1999-00 and 2011-12—was arranged by expenditure groups in rural as well as urban areas by Ranjan and Singh in their recent study on energy security.
Using data on household size sourced from the WHO we worked out rural and urban per capita consumption of the dirty fuels by the ‘poor’, defined by us as those who belong to the poorest 40% of all households, and the ‘non-poor’ in each of the three mentioned periods. We thus had 24 cases for ascertaining the truth of the Brundtland hypothesis, the combination of a year, a fuel and an area category—say 1987-88, ‘coke’ and ‘rural areas’—constituting a single case. The hypothesis failed the test in as many as 22 cases, with the poor consuming less of the dirty fuel in per capita terms.
Our results seem counterintuitive as in the mentioned periods the non-poor had access to clean fuels such as LPG, which were mostly not available to the poor. In periods following the ones we studied, the access of the poor to LPG has improved.
The invalidity of the Brundtland hypothesis in almost all studied cases suggests that it would probably be even more emphatically untrue in the cases of use of timber, gasoline and the like, with the non-poor using more furniture and relying more on automobile transport than the poor.
More research needs to be done to fully explain our unexpected findings. One possibility is that although the non-poor had access to LPG for cooking and electricity for lighting and heating, the rationing and irregular supply of these in many parts of the country implied that they still spent more even on dirty fuels than the poor because of their markedly higher affluence and consumption expenditures.
However, the lesson to be drawn from this study is clear: poverty alleviation, though a desirable goal, is not even a partial panacea for environmental degradation. The government needs to rely on other channels such as awareness generation and environmental education, instead of deluding itself that rescuing people from poverty will also stall environmental degradation.
Siddhartha Mitra is Professor of Economics at Jadavpur University. Raadhika Paul has a Masters degree from the Department of Economics, University of Calcutta.