Higher Incomes & Big Carbon Footprints Don’t Equal Better Life
Over the past few years, international climate negotiations have been a monumental disappointment. One reason for this is that developing countries find it hard to see why they should slow their consumption of fossil fuels, simply because countries like the U.S. and Japan have been over-consuming for decades.
The reasoning behind this resistance is that a big carbon footprint is necessary for the economic growth that will pave the way for more infrastructure, better paying jobs, and therefore a higher quality of life. But a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that this assumption is actually incorrect.
In fact, results showed that countries with high incomes and high carbon emissions do not achieve higher life expectancies than those with moderate incomes and lower carbon emissions.
A central finding of this study is that a moderate income, corresponding to a Gross Domestic Product of between $2,000-$12,000 per capita, is currently a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement for sustainable development: ‘necessary’ because no high-income country has carbon emissions below 1 tonne of carbon per capita; ‘not sufficient’ because moderate incomes do not guarantee either high life expectancy or low carbon emissions.
To arrive at this conclusion, researchers investigated links between carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, economic wealth and life expectancy and found that, ideally, from a sustainable development perspective, countries would achieve both high incomes and high life expectancies at low levels of carbon emissions.
“Most scenarios leading to stable and reduced carbon emissions rely on rapid technology shifts, from fossil-based energy to renewable sources, for example,” said Dr Julia Steinberger, a lecturer in ecological economics at the Sustainability Research Institute of the University of Leeds. ”The results of this study show that technology shifts may not be required if economic activity is reduced in the richest countries. In this case, global long life expectancies would be compatible with a stabilized climate on planet Earth.”
Unfortunately, this once again puts the onus of action on the world’s biggest and wealthiest countries. Even though the U.S. and its wealthy counterparts are in the best position to make the technological and behavioral changes necessary to balance the global carbon footprint, they are also the least likely to take action.
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