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Development and well-being still rely on burning fossil fuels

A major justification for exploiting natural resources, including burning fossil fuels, is that it helps improve the quality of our lives. We rely on oil, coal and gas, for example, to power our cars, keep our thermostats at a nice temperature and the lights on at night. Calls to curtail carbon emissions and our use of natural resources to protect the environment are often met with warnings that society will suffer as a result.

In fact, the tension between exploiting the environment and how it affects human well-being is not fully understood. Some have argued that after an initial phase of industrialisation and development, carbon emissions can be reduced, but well-being maintained. Adding to this debate is a new paper in Nature Climate Change. It compares the carbon emissions of 106 countries with the well-being of its citizens as these countries develop economically from 1970 to 2009.

More growth, more emissions

The study uses a measure called the carbon intensity of well-being (CIWB). This is derived from a country’s carbon emissions from industrial sources (burning fossil fuels and cement manufacture) per person relative to life expectancy. A low CIWB value is desirable from an environmental and human development standpoint.

A low value of carbon intensity of well-being indicates that a nation does not emit large quantities of carbon to make its citizens better off. Values are often high in developed nations – though these nations have long life expectancies, they usually have very high carbon emissions. Saying this, there is a lot of diversity among the 106 nations studied. While the USA and Australia have particularly high CIWB values, Japan and the UK have relatively low ones.

The analysis focuses on assessing the relationship between economic development (measured by GDP per capita) and CIWB, and examining whether this relationship varies across regions. A key finding is that, in most parts of the world, economic development increases CIWB, which indicates that economic growth typically drives up carbon emissions more rapidly than it improves life expectancy. This suggests that the way economic growth is pursued does not encourage sustainable progress in most nations.

The effect of economic growth on CIWB was particularly high in North America, Europe and Oceania, indicating that further development in affluent countries makes them less efficient at improving well-being. In South and Central America and in Asia the effect of economic growth on CIWB increased over time, adding fuel to the argument that economic development comes at the expense of the environment. Only in Africa did development lead to any kind of reduction in CIWB – although by 2009 this effect had become negligible.

No country is able to combine success across the three goals of high life expectancy, citizens feeling happy with their lives and the country living within environmental limits

Other measures

Jorgenson’s CIWB is one version of a family of indicators that measure the environmental intensity of well-being. Another measure is the ecological footprint, which estimates the amount of land area needed to support a given level of resource consumption. This can highlight other aspects of how human activity affects the environment.

Likewise, other indicators of well-being can be looked at, such as the subjective well-being or feelings of happiness of a population. This is generally measured by responses to surveys. For example, the Happy Planet Index, developed by the New Economics Foundation, compares countries’ ecological footprint with a combination of life expectancy figures and people’s “experienced well-being”. They find that no country is able to combine success across the three goals of high life expectancy, citizens feeling happy with their lives and the country living within environmental limits.

Due to a lack of survey data on people’s experienced happiness at multiple points in time for most nations, this new study by Jorgenson could not include people’s feelings in its analysis. Indeed, research continues to understand the ongoing relationship between human development and environmental impacts. Continuing research may determine whether different patterns are found for different types of measures.

But, Jorgenson’s study serves to confirm much of the existing body of research on the environmental impacts of well-being. This research has established that most countries need to become better at improving people’s quality of life without relying on high levels of resource consumption, as this comes at the expense of the environment. Improvements to well-being may be attainable without adverse effects on the environment.

Richard York is the professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at University of Oregon. This post originally appeared in The Conversation.

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