There are a few popular recurring arguments against environmentalism in general, and one of the most common is that only richer countries can afford to be green. The environment is fairly low on the list of people’s priorities, well after a stable income, basic housing and energy and so on. It’s only as countries develop and citizens enjoy a higher standard of living that they start to demand ‘post-materialist needs’ such as clean air. And by the time they do, the money is there to do something about it.
This gives us an Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), derived from Simon Kuznet’s work on inequality in the 1950s. In the early stages of industrialization, pollution and environmental damage will rise sharply. As GDP increases, it will eventually peak and begin to fall, as governments begin to legislate for pollution controls and as the economy moves towards services rather than industry.
The joy of the Kuznets Curve theory is that the environment is really nothing to worry about. It will solve itself if we just get on with pursuing economic growth. In fact, it turns the usual green concerns on their heads: those banging the drum for GDP growth are those who care most for the environment, because greater wealth will actually lead to better environmental performance.
The limits to growth fears of the 1970s are in fact upside down, according to the theory. “When a certain level of per capita income is reached,” says this primer on the subject, “economic growth helps to undo the damage done in earlier years. If economic growth is good for the environment, policies that stimulate growth ought to be good for the environment.” As the Palgrave Dictionary of Economics says, with the EKC we can “refute the claim that environmental degradation is an inevitable consequence of economic growth.”
It’s a theory certainly has an intuitive appeal, and it would be convenient if it worked. So what’s the evidence in the real world?
The initial observations for the Environmental Kuznets Curve came from modelling air quality in the early 90s. Across dozens of countries, a clear relationship could be demonstrated between GDP and pollution. Countries were indeed transitioning beyond heavy industry and as they did so, sulphur dioxide emissions and soot levels were falling. Tipping points in per capita income could be identified. Further studies showed improvements in water pollution too, though not across every indicator.
However, studies on other environmental indicators found no evidence of a peak and decline. Deforestation didn’t seem to show signs of recovery, and biodiversity loss was not reversed. Municipal waste carries on increasing with income. Most importantly of all, carbon emissions didn’t peak and decline either. In ecological footprint terms, the wealthiest countries clearly consume more of the world’s resources and services than poorer countries.
So the first problem is that the curve theory doesn’t hold across all environmental problems. It doesn’t apply to the most serious issue of our time, climate change. Of course, proponents of the curve simply say that carbon emissions do have a peak at which they would start declining, and we just haven’t reached the required per capita income threshold – so perhaps just a little more economic growth is what we need. Since we’ve already overshot the safe limits and begun to destabilise the climate, one wonders how much faith we want to put in the theory. Given that there are tipping points that would throw the climate into unstoppable climate change, increasing emissions is a luxury we don’t have.
The second problem is that the Environmental Kuznets Curve really only applies within countries. Britain’s economy has moved away from heavy industry, but we haven’t stopped using the goods of heavy industry – we still want to drive petrol-driven cars and build things out of cement. Our own mines have closed, but we still use vast quantities of tin and copper and iron from elsewhere. Our environmental impact has been displaced, not eliminated. “Countries may improve their decoupling performance most easily by outsourcing material-intensive extraction and processing to other countries and by importing concentrated products instead” says the UNEP.
What’s more, the next country down the line will also displace its environmental impact in turn. The most polluting industries have moved to China in recent years, and as China develops they will move again – currently towards inland China, according to some observers, perhaps eventually to Africa. But again, China’s improved environment does not equate to a global environmental improvement, just as shifting of pollution from one part of the world to another.
That’s bad news for whoever comes last in this chain. “In our finite world the poor countries of today would be unable to find further countries from which to import resource intensive products as they themselves become wealthy” says David Stern. “When the poorer countries apply similar levels of environmental regulation they would face the more difficult task of abating these activities rather than outsourcing them to other countries.”
In summary, the Environmental Kuznets Curve is an observable phenomenon that only really applies to local environmental issues where people can rally to improve local conditions. It doesn’t operate at the level of global issues, the planetary boundaries, which are of course the most serious. It can be seen in pollution in particular, but to extrapolate across the whole spectrum of ecology would be a big mistake. As Samuel Alexander writes, to do so would be to “totally miss the bigger picture, which is that it would be ecologically catastrophic if the entire world tried to become affluent as a means of environmental protection. If the EKC hypothesis sounds too good to be true, that is because, on the whole, it is false.”