Green Worry: Why Helping The Poor May Hurt The Climate

  • Date: 28/02/14
  • Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience

Can the world promote economic development while still halting climate change? It’s a complicated question, but a new study suggests that so far, humanity isn’t doing so well at meeting both goals at the same time.

Crosded street in Uganda

A crowded taxi park in Kampala, Uganda. (Photo: Black Sheep Media/Shutterstock

A regional analysis of 106 countries around the world finds that, with the partial exception of Africa, most areas emit more and more carbon to improve their citizens’ well-being as those nations become more developed.

The findings are the latest volley in a debate going back at least to the 1970s over whether development and fossil fuel consumption have to go hand-in-hand. One idea holds that as nations become more developed, they can improve their citizens’ well-being more efficiently, without adding to their rates of carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming. The new study suggests that this optimistic viewpoint isn’t playing out.

“Across all these regions, the effect of economic development on the carbon intensity of well-being isn’t going down anywhere,” said study researcher Andrew Jorgenson, a sociologist at the University of Utah.

The development versus sustainability trade-off

Jorgenson’s research focuses on the question of whether economic development must conflict with the environment, or whether development can instead protect the environment. The scientist analyzed data from between 1970 and 2009. First, he measured the carbon intensity of well-being for each country — basically, a ratio of how much carbon a nation has to emit to improve its people’s lot in life. In this case, Jorgenson used life expectancy at birth as a way to estimate well-being. Populations with longer life expectancies generally have a better standard of living.

Next, Jorgenson tracked the ratio over time, comparing it to each country’s gross domestic product, a measure of economic development. He wanted to know if countries would become more or less efficient at improving well-being as they developed. He also split the countries into continental regions to better understand the trends at a local level.

“What is going on, on the ground in different parts of the world, is unique to those places,” Jorgenson told Live Science.

The results showed different patterns in different regions. In Asia and South and Central America, development led to an increase in the carbon expended to boost well-being, Jorgenson found. What’s more, the carbon curve is getting steeper over time. The more developed these nations become, the more carbon they emit for each incremental improvement in their people’s well-being.

“These are nations that are experiencing incredible economic development, and they are experiencing, increasingly so, carbon-intensive economic development,” Jorgenson said. Carbon-intensive development would involve manufacturing jobs over, say, an expansion of the service industry.

In North America, Europe and the Oceania (Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands) region, development is also linked to higher carbon emissions per unit of well-being, though this relationship is steady compared to Asia, and Central and South America.

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