Economic development equals a greater carbon footprint and more greenhouse gas emissions, according to economists. Greater social inclusion and improved quality of life comes at the expense of environmental sustainability as countries became increasingly wealthy, they argue.
From Lund University
Must greater prosperity necessarily lead to a greater carbon footprint and increased greenhouse gas emissions? “In theory, no, but in practice this seems to be the case”, says researcher Max Koch from Lund University in Sweden. His study of 138 countries is the first ever to take a global approach to the connections between growth, prosperity and ecological sustainability. The study was recently published in the journal article Global Environmental Change.
“Some people argue that extensive investments in green production and sustainable consumption can increase economic growth without increasing the emissions of greenhouse gases. We wanted to test how this connection holds up in reality, taking a global perspective”, says Professor in Social Work Max Koch.
Together with his colleague Martin Fritz from the University of Bonn, he divided the world’s countries into four groups based on their gross domestic product (GDP) per capita: poor countries, developing countries, emerging countries, and rich countries. There is also a fifth group, which consists of only eight countries and is called overdeveloped countries, in which the average annual income exceeds USD 50 000 per person. Apart from USA, Singapore and Switzerland, this group includes rich oil nations, such as Norway and Qatar.
The prosperity of the different groups was then measured according to three separate categories: ecological sustainability, social inclusion and quality of life, in the form of life expectancy, literacy rates and, and subjective well-being.
In all three categories there was a clear connection to GDP: there was greater social inclusion and the quality of life improved as the countries became increasingly wealthy at the expense of environmental sustainability such as greater emissions and carbon footprint.
“We are not saying that it is impossible to separate economic growth from ecological issues; however, our study of global development shows a clear connection between economic development and increased greenhouse gas emissions that cannot be ignored”, says Max Koch.
One of the researchers’ conclusions is that because of the urgent need to reduce emissions globally, the possibility for an economic degrowth should be seriously considered – that is, a deliberate de-prioritisation of economic growth as a policy objective.
The study was conducted using data from the World Bank, the Global Footprint Network and OECD.
Taking a global perspective this paper sets out to theoretically and empirically identify prosperity patterns for four groups of countries at different levels of economic development. It conceptualizes ‘prosperity’ in terms of ecological sustainability, social inclusion, and the quality of life and contextualizes this definition in global perspective. Subsequently, it operationalizes and measures these dimensions on the basis of data from sources such as the World Bank, the Global Footprint Network and the OECD for 138 countries and by applying dual multiple factor analysis. Building on earlier research that suggested that higher development levels in terms of GDP per capita are capable of providing social and individual prosperity but at the expense of environmental sustainability, we ask whether other interrelations between prosperity indicators exist on other levels of economic development. Empirically distinguishing between ‘rich’, ‘emerging’, ‘developing’ and ‘poor countries’ the paper finds that social and individual prosperity indicators largely increase with economic development while ecological sustainability indicators worsen. Our analyses further reveal that ‘social cohesion’ can be established under different economic and institutional conditions, that subjective wellbeing increases with income rises at all levels of economic development and that a decoupling of carbon emissions from the provision of prosperity is, in principle, achievable, while a reduction of the global matter and energy throughput poses a much greater challenge. The paper concludes by highlighting the repercussions of these findings for the trajectories that countries at different levels of economic development would need to undertake.
Economic development and prosperity patterns around the world: Structural challenges for a global steady-state economy; Martin Fritz and Max Koch; Global Environmental Change Volume 38, May 2016, Pages 41–48, doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.02.007
Lund University news release via AphaGalileo.