Tag Archives: environmental Kuznet’s curve

Pollution and Development in Beijing

Sunrise over Beijing's polluted skyline.

Sunrise over Beijing’s polluted skyline.

Air pollution in the Chinese capital Beijing reached levels deemed hazardous to human health over the weekend. According to World Health organization guidelines, air is “unhealthy” when the tiniest particles (PM 2.5) reach 100 micrograms per cubic meter. Individuals are usually warned to remain indoors when they reach 300 micrograms. Unofficial readings from the U.S. embassy recorded levels over more than 800 micrograms per cubic meter. Inhaling such particles can cause respiratory infections and increase the likelihood of developing lung cancer and heart disease.

Pollution in Beijing and other Chinese cities is primarily the result of the country’s rapid economic development. In Beijing, air pollution is derived from two primary sources: car exhaust and coal dust.

The environmental Kuznets curve helps to make sense of this relationship. According to curve, there is a relationship between environmental quality and economic development. As countries industrialize, environmental degradation (pollution, etc.) tends to increase until the country reaches a particularly level of development, at which point it begins to fall. The theory is that a “clean environment” is a post-material demand. Individuals living in deep poverty place a clean environment relatively low on their list of priorities, which generally focus on more immediate survival concerns. However, once those survival needs are satisfied, individuals begin to demand other rights. This theory has been advanced to explain everything from environmentalism to democratization and minority rights.

In the case of the environment, there is clear data that suggest that—for many contaminants—the curve holds true. Interestingly, the tipping point, the level of economic development at which pollution begins to decline, appears to vary by pollutant. Lead, for example, begins to decline at a relatively low level of economic development, while air pollution (particulates) decline at a higher level. For others—most notably carbon dioxide emissions—there appears to be no decline, and levels of CO2 emissions continue to increase in step with the size of the economy at all levels of development.

The environmental Kuznets curve raises some interesting questions for sustainable development. If correct (and the theory is itself contested), it suggests that sustainable development is really about transitioning countries from a relatively low point on the curve to a higher point. Once at that higher point, the level of economic development would result in local incentives and demands for a cleaner environment. But the lack of relationship between the level of development and levels of certain pollutants, such as greenhouse gasses, are reason for concern.

What do you think? Does China’s economic development raise environmental concerns? How might Chinese development be made greener? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts.


A Look Forward in the Global Economy

Beijing, the World's 10th Most Polluted City.

Beijing, the World’s 10th Most Polluted City.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released some interesting data yesterday, which was picked up on by the Guardian’s Datablog.

First, have a look at the three minute video produced by the OECD highlighting its findings.

Then have a look at the Guardian’s Datablog graphics, which provide a side-by-side comparison of the composition of the global economy in 2011 and the projected figures for 2060.

The key takeaway point here is that the United States’ and OECD’s share of global economic activity is in decline. In 2011, the United States alone accounted for 22.7 percent of all global economic activity, and the OECD countries collectively accounted for about two-thirds (64.7%) of the world’s economy.

China (17%) and India’s proportion of the global economy respectively will increase from 17 percent and 6.6 percent today to 27.8 percent and 18.2 percent of the global economy by 2060. Economic growth in the developing world will outpace that of the developed world, such that by 2060 the United States’ share of the global economy will have declined to 16.3 percent, and the OECD’s collective share will have declined to 42.3 percent.

The data are interesting, but we need to pause and think about what they actually mean. A couple of issues emerge.

First, as liberal political economy tells us, economic growth is not a zero-sum game. The developing world’s rising share of the global economy has not been at the expense of the developed world’s economy over the past forty years. Rather, as the “economic pie” has grown larger, countries like China and India have been able to capture a larger portion of the economic growth.

But the changing structure of the global economy does raise other issues which are more zero-sum.

Economic growth in the developing world raises concerns over access to non-renewable resources like coal, oil, and rare earth minerals. Already competition over minerals between the United States and China has led China to restrict exports. Further, competition between China and the United States for access to non-renewable resources has escalated. As other countries enter the fray, demand for such resources is likely to intensify.

Additionally, the nature of economic growth may give reason for pause. Historically, economic growth has been a highly polluting affair. The environmental Kuznet’s curve suggests that pollution increases with economic growth until a country reaches a particular level of development, after which protective regulations are imposed and the environment begins to improve. In this respect, China’s pattern of economic growth echoes the pattern established by Great Britain, the United States, Germany, and other developed nations as they industrialized. But the prospect of expanded pollution, dramatic growth in carbon emissions, widespread deforestation, and so on raise concerns about the sustainability of economic growth that are not addressed in the OECD report.

What do you think? Does the OECD forecast give reason for concern? Or is it merely part of a continuing trend of economic growth in the world? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know.