Best way to clean up the environment? Make everyone richer.

Edward Willett @ 22-04-2009

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John Tierney at the New York Times has a couple of predictions for Earth Day:

1. There will be no green revolution in energy or anything else. No leader or law or treaty will radically change the energy sources for people and industries in the United States or other countries. No recession or depression will make a lasting change in consumers’ passions to use energy, make money and buy new technology — and that, believe it or not, is good news, because…

2. The richer everyone gets, the greener the planet will be in the long run.

Tierney acknowledges that that second prediction may be hard to believe with concerns about U.S. carbon emissions and increasing emissions from India and China as they get richer, but he backs it up with data:

By the 1990s, researchers realized that graphs of environmental impact didn’t produce a simple upward-sloping line as countries got richer. The line more often rose, flattened out and then reversed so that it sloped downward, forming the shape of a dome or an inverted U — what’s called a Kuznets curve. (See nytimes.com/tierneylab for an example.)

In dozens of studies, researchers identified Kuznets curves for a variety of environmental problems. There are exceptions to the trend, especially in countries with inept governments and poor systems of property rights, but in general, richer is eventually greener. As incomes go up, people often focus first on cleaning up their drinking water, and then later on air pollutants like sulfur dioxide.

As their wealth grows, people consume more energy, but they move to more efficient and cleaner sources — from wood to coal and oil, and then to natural gas and nuclear power, progressively emitting less carbon per unit of energy. This global decarbonization trend has been proceeding at a remarkably steady rate since 1850, according to Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

“Once you have lots of high-rises filled with computers operating all the time, the energy delivered has to be very clean and compact,” said Mr. Ausubel, the director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller. “The long-term trend is toward natural gas and nuclear power, or conceivably solar power. If the energy system is left to its own devices, most of the carbon will be out of it by 2060 or 2070.”

Tierney says the U.S. and other Western countries seem to be near the top of the curve for carbon emissions and ready to start the downward slope. He points out that the amount of carbon emitted by the average American has been fairly flat for twenty years now, and per capita carbon emissions are declining in some other Western countries. Increasing forest land, also a by-product of increasing wealth and better agricultural technology, helps take more carbon out of the atmosphere in richer countries, too, whereas in poor countries, deforestation runs rampant as people seek fuel and farmland.

By this argument, tough restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions from developing countries could actually harm the environment by slowing their economic growth and delaying the point at which they top the curve and reach downward slope.

Tierney finishes with this:

While some American environmentalists hope that the combination of the economic crisis and a new president can start an era of energy austerity and green power, Mr. Ausubel says they’re hoping against history.

Over the past century, he says, nothing has drastically altered the long-term trends in the way Americans produce or use energy — not the Great Depression, not the world wars, not the energy crisis of the 1970s or the grand programs to produce alternative energy.

“Energy systems evolve with a particular logic, gradually, and they don’t suddenly morph into something different,” Mr. Ausubel says. That doesn’t make for a rousing speech on Earth Day. But in the long run, a Kuznets curve is more reliable than a revolution.

(Image: Unofficial Earth Day Flag, Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]Earth Day, environment, pollution, economy, energy[/tags]