Politicians and business leaders focus too much on feel-good gimmicks and not enough on cost-benefit analysis when trying to craft sustainable development policies, a leading forecaster said.
"What we have to do is not get led astray by small, insignificant issues, where we do very little at high cost, and rather focus on things where we can do a lot of good at low cost," said Bjorn Lomborg, head of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, an economic think tank researching global development goals.
Businesses are under pressure from consumers to be "green" and socially responsible, but this often leads to cosmetic changes that have little positive impact, Lomborg said.
Named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the top 100 global thinkers, Lomborg lists indoor air pollution and curable diseases as primary targets for the world's attention. Climate change and global warming come near the bottom of his list.
A misunderstanding of the issues means scarce resources are poorly allocated, he said.
Headlines are grabbed by pesticides, which kill 20 people a year in the United States, and global warming, which kills 30,000 to 40,000 worldwide.
By comparison, 10 million people die each year from easily curable diseases, and 4.3 million die from burning toxic fuels indoors, Lomborg said.
He told business leaders at the World Travel and Tourism Council summit last month in Sanya, Hainan province, that hotels should put less focus on encouraging guests to reuse laundry and more attention on how many diesel engines they run.
Lomborg said the real villain in water wastage is inefficient agricultural practices.
He said the world should embrace industrial farming as the only solution to feeding a growing population. Going organic "feels good" but requires too much land.
Lomborg said his views are shaped by clear-headed analysis of where today's investment dollars will have the greatest return for future generations and that conventional projections often neglect the transformative impact of new technologies.
"Its like opening your refrigerator and saying you have food for only two days, so you are going to die in three," he said.
In fact, you go to the shops and buy food, or invent a new product to solve the problem, Lomborg said.
Referring to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he told the meeting that a global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius by 2070 will affect annual global gross domestic product by between 0.2 and 2 per cent.
To mitigate this will require an average annual reduction in consumption equal to 6 per cent of global GDP.
"This is a really bad deal. Global warming is a real problem, but the way it is approached is a hyped problem. It is not the end of the world. This leads to really bad policies," the Danish professor said.
Lomborg has been criticised as a climate change denier, or at the very least, a cheerleader for energy firms and preservers of the status quo. Others have accused him of data bias.
There are hidden costs to climate change, including health costs from pollution that are hard to quantify, said Li Shuo, a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia.
Climate change is a long-term threat that requires a transformative change in the energy sector, Li said.
Responding to Lomborg's assertion, made at the summit, that renewable energy resources should not be rolled out until they are price-competitive with fossil fuels, Li said that in parts of China, wind power is now cheaper than petrol, and the price of solar panels continues to drop.
Lomborg wants governments and companies to invest more in renewables but complains that consumers and taxpayers are subsidising inefficient energy mixes and taking money away from more pressing issues like poverty alleviation.
"China has no qualms about using a lot of coal and saying yes, it's dirty, yes it's polluting, but it has also lifted 680 million people out of poverty," Lomborg said.