Carbon dioxide recently reached 400 parts per million in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, released by vehicles and electricity generation, is the main gas believed to cause climate change. The number 400 is important because scientists believe carbon dioxide concentrations have not been this high for at least 3 million years, before humans evolved.
Why should the development field care? While rich and middle income countries are responsible for most of the emissions (left image), the poorest and most vulnerable countries (right image), the ones we seek to serve, are the least equipped to deal with climate shocks. Floods, droughts, deforestation, and desertification can displace populations, impact agriculture, introduce new diseases, and change existing ones.
The environmental and development fields often seem separate and disconnected. Sure, sustainability is a development buzzword, but it usually refers to financial sustainability, not environmental sustainability. There has been attention on climate change mitigation and adaptation, including the World Bank’s Apps for Climate challenge that these maps came from, and the International Climate Fund, set up by the UK government to “to help the world’s poorest adapt to climate change and promote cleaner, greener growth.” Still, development and environmental efforts could be better integrated. Some green projects, such as solar energy or composting toilets, are motivated by limited local infrastructure rather than environmental concerns. Protecting our only planet should be more intentional.
Beyond targeting large amounts of money towards environmental efforts, there are plenty of opportunities to implement greener practices on an everyday basis. The development field can develop a greener culture. Think back on the past year: How many proposals, budgets and reports have you printed out? How many disposable plates and utensils and water bottles have you used? How many miles have you traveled by plane or car or boat? (Maybe you complained about too many bumpy roads and flights, while secretly beaming with pride at achieving elite airline membership status?)
On a programmatic level, how often are environmental impacts considered? I recently learned of a community health program that was working on improving its supply chain of medicines. Pills were initially dispensed in large pill bottles, and staff repackaged pills for dispensing to patients. They switched to individual blister packs to save the staff time and improve hygiene. Blister packs also keep pills dry, which is particularly important for moisture-absorbing chemicals like zinc. However, no thought was given to the environmental impact of using disposable blister packs. Community health workers were trained to recognize and not dispense expired drugs, but there was no plan for proper disposal of expired drugs. Without proper disposal infrastructure, disposed drugs could easily enter the local water system and affect wildlife and humans. This is a problem seen in the US as well, where traces of antibiotics, hormones, mood stabilizers, and other drugs have been found in tap water. Don’t get me wrong. We should aspire to the highest quality of healthcare for everyone, including unexpired, clean and effective drugs. However, I do think that the environment effects should be considered at all stages.
What do you think? Are your programs taking the environment into account? How can the development field be greener?