The balance between economic development and environmental damage is also evident in the problem of pollution and waste products. Increased economic activities, especially in industrial countries, yield pollution from trash and litter, sewage, oil spills, gas and chemical emissions, and nuclear radiation.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), representing the world’s 30 richest countries, estimates that from 1980-2005 there was a 35 percent increase per person in waste each year, from 946 lbs. to 1276 lbs, among its member-countries (OECD, 2008). OECD says that, “municipal waste generation continues to increase almost as rapidly GDP in member-countries.” Overall, total waste generation in OECD countries exceeded four billion tons in the mid-1990s (OECD, 2008).

The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, meanwhile, predicts that by 2025 global waste generation may increase five-fold. Within developing countries, the UN commission expects that waste will double within the next ten years (Shaw, 1991).

International trade made this problem particularly acute in the 1980s. “Toxic traders” in environmentally stricter industrialized countries were avoiding the increasingly high cost of disposing of hazardous waste domestically by shipping the waste to developing countries and Eastern Europe (O’Neill, 1999). To combat what many people perceived to be a contemptible and unfair arrangement, the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes was drafted in 1989. The convention has three main objectives:

1) to reduce the generation of hazardous wastes,
2) to dispose of hazardous wastes close to their place of production, and
3) to reduce the movement of hazardous waste.

International shipments of hazardous waste require approval of the governments to which the waste will be imported or across which it will transit. Export to certain countries is banned altogether. The convention requires annual reporting by each party, offers legal and technical advice, and promotes financial assistance to developing countries. The Basel Convention came into force in 1992 and as of May 2013, there are 179 parties to the convention; however, the U.S. and Haiti have signed, but not ratified the convention.

Similarly, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), adopted in May 2001, places strict controls on production, trade, and disposal of 12 of the most dangerous POPs because these toxic substances—mainly industrial chemical by-products and pesticides—are highly injurious, spread easily, and become more concentrated-and thus more dangerous-as they move from organism to organism up the food chain.

Most of the POPs regulated by the Convention have already been banned in industrialized countries under domestic law, so the primary purpose of the treaty is to provide financial and technical assistance to developing countries. Recognizing the value of international cooperation, President Bush in May 2002 advised the U.S. Senate to ratify the convention, saying, “POPs chemicals respect no boundaries and can harm Americans” (O’Neill, 1999).

In 2004, the Convention entered into force with ratification by 128 parties and 151 signatories. Nonetheless, the U.S. has only become a signatory and has not ratified the Convention. As of 2013, there are 179 parties, and 152 countries have ratified it (and/or given their acceptance, approval, or accession). Notable non-ratifying states include the U.S., Israel, and Italy, and Iraq (UN, 1992).

Why were pollution problems dealt with more easily than global warming or biodiversity loss? Three factors account for the success of international anti-pollution measures.

First, many of the scientific doubts that exist over global warming and biodiversity did not exist for pollution. Those whose economic interests might be harmed by tighter pollution regulations could not successfully argue that the science was too uncertain to be worth imposing restrictions on the use of pollution-causing chemical.

Second, in a related development and as noted above regarding POPS, many of the most dangerous chemicals had already been banned through domestic regulations before international efforts. This made coordinating international strategy easier.

Third, technology was developed to avoid the use of hazardous chemicals, so that adapting to pollution regulations became relatively cost-efficient.

The availability of technology to control pollution holds two potentially contradictory lessons for the debate about global warming. On the one hand, supporters of strict controls on the causes of global warming can point to the development of such technology to show that corporations can adapt to be productive and environmentally friendly. On the other hand, opponents of strict controls can point to technological adaptation to show that whatever the environmental problems, the free market economy can develop fixes without being forced to do so by government regulation.

The relative balance between the push by government for environmental protection versus an advanced economy’s adaptation to environmental protection out of private concern poses a difficult issue for policymakers.

For more information on the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, please click here:

World Summit on Sustainable Development Fails to Live Up to Expectations.

For an example of how pollution affects drinking water, please read: Tap or Bottled Water: Which is better.

* Picture source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fchouse/2505440634/

1 Environmental Data Compendium 11.
2 OECD Environmental Outlook.
3 Shaw RP Abstract.
4 O’Neill “Problems with current U.S. Policy.”
5 Schafer “Problems with Current U.S. Policy.”
6 Basel Convention Status of Ratification.

Next: Conclusion