Export ethics: asbestos and coal

by Milan on August 24, 2010

in Air pollution, Climate change, Coal mining, Ethics, International relations, Power plants, Water pollution

Controversially, Canada is a major producer and exporter of asbestos – a material that has been judged too dangerous for domestic use, but which the government and Canadian firms apparently feels to be good enough for developing countries. At the same time as the Government of Canada was paying to promote asbestos sales abroad, workers in hazmat suits were carefully removing the material from our Parliament buildings. Driven largely by concerns about a small number of jobs in Quebec, Canada remains an asbestos booster, still willing to fund the Chrysotile Institute.

This raises a question that is profoundly related to the problem of coal: what is the ethical position of states with large reserves of a dangerous resource, for which there is a market overseas?

Equal treatment

Naturally, there are several different approaches that can be taken in evaluating this ethical question. One is to focus on some notion of equal treatment. If we think asbestos is too dangerous for Canadians, why is it OK to sell to Indians. Does it matter that they are buying it voluntarily? In a related question, does it matter that they have less ability to afford safer alternatives? One can certainly argue that Canada should not be willing to expose the citizens of other countries to dangers we would consider unacceptable here. In a counter-argument, it is possible to argue that depriving the recipient countries of asbestos would make them even worse off than they are now, by forcing the use of something even worse.

Cost-benefit considerations

Another approach is more economically inspired. One way of phrasing it would be: “Is absolutely everybody better off, in a situation where Canada chooses to export asbestos?” When allowing something to occur, such as a trade, improves the welfare of at least some people involved without harming that of anybody, economists say that the trade is a Pareto improvement. This is often a high bar, and certainly isn’t met in the asbestos case. At least some people in the recipient countries will get sick and die as a consequence of this international trade in asbestos.

A less rigorous standard is called ‘potential Pareto optimality’ or Kaldor–Hicks efficiency. In this approach, you tally up all the costs and benefits associated with a decision. If the sum of the benefits is large enough that the winners could theoretically compensate the losers, then there is a certain sense in which making that choice could be justified.

There are a number of serious problems with Kaldor–Hicks, however. Firstly, there is no requirement that compensation actually be paid. That means that some people will suffer for the enrichment of others, and without giving consent to the arrangement. Secondly, there is the ever-tricky question of deciding what human health and lives are worth. In most economic analyses, the value of an Indian life is implicitly rated lower than that of a Canadian life, because governments and individuals are able to spend more to defend the latter than the former.

What about coal?

Some states – like China and the United States – both produce and use a massive amount of coal. Some, like Canada and Australia, are exporters on an enormous scale. The coal dug up in Canada, sold overseas, and burned causes harm to an enormous number of people. Some, like the Canadian coal miners, take on the risks in a relatively voluntary way. Others, like the members of future generations threatened by climate change, are completely vulnerable to the choices we make on their behalf. Other groups that are harmed include those who suffer from the air and water pollution that accompanies coal burning.

Eventually, I think it will be generally recognized that digging up coal for export is not ethical. It allows those who are alive today to enrich themselves, while forcing the associated risks onto innocent members of future generations. The path to a coal-free world will be a very difficult one, not least because of the massive investments that rely on the continued burning of the stuff. Achieving that outcome will require voluntary restraint, restrictions on coal burning imposed on companies and individuals by the state, and quite possibly the conscientious refusal of some states to sell the climate-wrecking stuff, even when there are still ready buyers internationally.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

. September 9, 2010 at 11:36 am

Government investment in asbestos is morally bankrupt

Quebec has lent Jeffrey Mine Inc. $3.5-million to keep it alive when the asbestos industry should be allowed to die a natural death

Andre Picard

From Thursday’s Globe and Mail Published on Wednesday, Sep. 08, 2010 12:48PM EDT Last updated on Wednesday, Sep. 08, 2010 7:48PM EDT

Investissement Québec, a government agency, has provided Jeffrey Mine Inc. with a $3.5-million loan, allowing it to continue mining asbestos for a month longer and giving it one last gasp at attracting foreign investment.

One has to wonder why.

Why are the governments of Quebec and Canada so hell bound in their support of a deathly, dying industry?

How can a country and a province that claim to care about human rights and international health justify peddling tonnes of a carcinogen to the developing world for a few shekels?

What horrors are being wrought in the name of economic development, and in a bid for a few votes?

To date, 52 countries have banned asbestos. It is a cancer-causing product, and we have known so since the 1950s. The tiny fibres, when inhaled, can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Asbestos was once a miracle fibre because of its resistance to fire, rust, rot and termites.

In Canada, the “white gold” was once used liberally, in everything from pipe insulation to car brakes, modelling clay to talcum powder.

As a result, we have one of the highest rates of asbestos-related cancer in the world. In Quebec, asbestos is responsible for half of all workplace-related deaths.

. September 9, 2010 at 11:38 am

The federal government also provides $250,000 a year to the Chrysotile Institute so it can flog asbestos abroad and propagandize at home.

The institute is a master of Orwellian doublespeak: It calls asbestos “chrysotile”; it promotes the “safe use” of the product, glossing over the scientific evidence that there is no practical means of safe handling; its lobbying is responsible for the fact that, in Quebec, the “safe” level of exposure to asbestos is 10 times what it is in other provinces; and one of the group’s favourite rhetorical claims is that asbestos is invaluable and safe because even NASA uses it.

Indeed, asbestos is used on the space shuttle so that it won’t catch fire during launch and re-entry. But the reality is that the principal buyers of asbestos are India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, where the mineral is used in construction. Needless to say, the workplace safety standards in these countries aren’t exactly comparable with NASA’s.

“When it comes to the asbestos industry, you readily abandon science and put forward the lie that Quebec asbestos can be safely used, when even your own government health experts have told you this is not true,” Mohit Gupta, co-ordinator of the Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India said in a stinging letter to Quebec Premier Jean Charest.

. January 31, 2012 at 7:04 pm

The U.S. is burning less and less coal each year, thanks to cheap natural gas and new pollution rules. From a climate perspective, that’s a huge deal — less coal means less carbon. But here’s the catch: if the U.S. just exports its unused coal abroad, the end result could actually be more carbon.

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