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Do rich nations “owe” poor ones for eco-damage?

Jan. 22, 2008
Courtesy University of California - Berkeley
and World Science staff

En­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age caused by rich na­t­ions dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly harms poor ones— and costs them more than their to­tal for­eign debt of $1.8 tril­lion, re­search­ers say.

So con­cludes a study billed as the first glob­al ac­count­ing in dol­lar terms of na­t­ions’ toll on the en­vi­ron­ment.

A graph­ic sum­ma­rizes find­ings of a new study on the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts of rich, middle-income and poor na­tions on each oth­er. (Graph­ic cour­te­sy Tha­ra Sri­ni­va­san/UC Berke­ley)


At least to some ex­tent, “rich na­t­ions have de­vel­oped at the ex­pense of the poor... in ef­fect, there is a debt to the poor,” said Rich­ard B. Nor­gaard, an ec­o­log­i­cal econ­o­mist at the Uni­ver­s­ity of Ca­li­for­nia-Berkeley, one of the re­search­ers. “That, per­haps, is one rea­son that they are poor.”

There will be much “con­tro­ver­sy,” he ad­mit­ted, “about wheth­er you can even do this kind of study and wheth­er we did it right.” Nor­gaard said he’d like to of­fer a chal­lenge to any re­search­ers who may doubt its find­ings: “do [the stu­dy] your­self and do it bet­ter.” This first one, he added, is mainly meant to get peo­ple think­ing.

The cal­cula­t­ions drew on more than a dec­ade of as­sess­ments by en­vi­ron­men­tal econ­o­mists who have tried to at­tach mon­e­tary fig­ures to en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age, plus da­ta from the re­cent U.N. Mil­len­ni­um Ec­o­sys­tem As­sess­ment and World Bank re­ports.

To sim­pli­fy the monumen­tal task, re­search­ers fo­cused on just six types of en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age: farm­ing in­ten­sifica­t­ion and ex­pan­sion, de­for­esta­t­ion, over­fish­ing, loss of man­grove swamps and forests, ozone de­ple­tion and cli­mate change. Oth­er types of dam­age seen as harder to ap­praise were ig­nored, such as in­dus­t­ri­al pol­lu­tion and loss of hab­i­tat and bio­divers­ity. 

Thus, the re­sult is a low-end es­ti­mate of costs, the in­vest­i­ga­tors said. Giv­en that, “the num­bers are very strik­ing,” said lead re­search­er Thara Sri­ni­va­san, of the Pa­cif­ic Eco­in­for­mat­ics and Com­puta­t­ional Ecol­o­gy Lab Berke­ley, Calif., an in­sti­tute that calls it­self by the ac­ro­nym PEaCE. The in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­ported the find­ings this week in the early on­line edi­tion of the re­search jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­t­ional Acad­e­my of Sci­ences.

“Hu­man­ity has trans­formed our nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment at an un­prec­e­dent­ed speed and scale,” Srini­vasan said, not­ing that the Earth’s popula­t­ion dou­bled in the past 50 years to 6.5 bil­lion as the av­er­age per-capita gross world prod­uct al­so dou­bled. “What we don’t know is which na­t­ions around the world are really driv­ing the ec­o­log­i­cal dam­ages and which are pay­ing the price.”

Nor­gaard said the larg­est en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact by far is from cli­mate change, which has been as­sessed in pre­vi­ous stud­ies. The new study broad­ens the as­sess­ment and thus pro­vides a con­text for the ear­li­er work, he added.

The study found, for ex­am­ple, that while de­for­esta­t­ion and farm­ing in­ten­sifica­t­ion pri­marily im­pact the host coun­try, the im­pacts from cli­mate change and ozone de­ple­tion are spread widely over all. “Low-in­come coun­tries will bear sig­nif­i­cant bur­dens from cli­mate change and ozone de­ple­tion. But these en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems have been overwhelmingly driv­en by emis­sion of green­house gas­es and ozone-depleting chem­i­cals by the rest of the world,” Sri­ni­va­san said.

Sci­en­tists pre­dict cli­mate change will in­crease the sev­er­ity of storms and ex­treme weath­er, in­clud­ing pro­longed droughts and flood­ing, with an in­crease in in­fec­tious dis­eases. Ozone de­ple­tion mostly im­pacts health, with in­creases ex­pected in can­cer rates, cataracts and blind­ness. Over­fish­ing and con­ver­sion of man­grove swamps to shrimp farm­ing were oth­er ar­eas in which rich na­t­ions were judged to be bur­den­ing poor ones. 

“Seafood de­rived from de­plet­ed fish stocks in low-in­come coun­try wa­ters ul­ti­mately ends up on the plates of con­sumers in middle-in­come and rich coun­tries,” Sri­ni­va­san said. Man­grove de­struc­tion elim­i­nat­ed storm pro­tec­tions, the group added, which some say was a ma­jor fac­tor in the huge cas­u­al­ty foll from 2005’s South­east Asian tsu­na­mi.

When all the im­pacts are added up, the por­tion of the “foot­print” of high-in­come na­t­ions fall­ing on low-in­come coun­tries is great­er than the fi­nan­cial debt rec­og­nized for low-in­come coun­tries, with a net pre­s­ent val­ue of $1.8 tril­lion in 2005, Sri­ni­va­san said. (This was cal­cu­lated in in­terna­t­ional dol­lars, U.S. dol­lars ad­justed to ac­count for dif­fer­ent cur­ren­cies’ pur­chas­ing pow­er.) “The ec­o­log­i­cal debt could more than off­set the fi­nan­cial debt of low-in­come na­t­ions,” she said.

In­ter­est­ing­ly, middle-in­come na­t­ions may have an im­pact on poor na­t­ions equiv­a­lent to that of rich na­t­ions, the study con­cluded. While poor na­t­ions im­pact oth­er in­come tiers al­so, their ef­fect on rich na­t­ions was found to be less than a third of the im­pact in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.


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Homepage image: Deforestation in Brazil; image courtesy Oak Ridge Nat'l Laboratory



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Environmental damage caused by rich nations disproportionately harms poor ones, and costs them more than their total foreign debt, researchers say. So concludes a study billed as the first global accounting in dollar terms of nations’ toll on the environment. “At least to some extent, the rich nations have developed at the expense of the poor and, in effect, there is a debt to the poor,” said Richard B. Norgaard, an ecological economist at the university, one of the researchers. “That, perhaps, is one reason that they are poor.” But “there will be a lot of controversy,” he admitted, “about whether you can even do this kind of study and whether we did it right.” Norgaard said he’d like to offer a challenge to any other researchers who may doubt its findings: “do [the study] yourself and do it better.” This first one, he added, is mainly meant to get people thinking. The calculations drew on more than a decade of assessments by environmental economists who have tried to attach monetary figures to environmental damage, plus data from the recent U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and World Bank reports. To simplify the monumental task, researchers focused on just six types of environmental damage: agricultural intensification and expansion, deforestation, overfishing, loss of mangrove swamps and forests, ozone depletion and climate change. Other types of damage seen as harder to appraise were ignored, such as industrial pollution and loss of habitat and biodiversity. Thus, the end result is a low-end estimate of costs, the researchers said. Given that, “the numbers are very striking,” said lead researcher Thara Srinivasan, of the Pacific Ecoinformatics and Computational Ecology Lab Berkeley, Calif., an institute that calls itself by the acronym PeaCE. The investigators reported the findings this week in the early online edition of the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Humanity has transformed our natural environment at an unprecedented speed and scale,” Srinivasan said, noting that the Earth’s population doubled in the past 50 years to 6.5 billion as the average per-capita gross world product also doubled. “What we don’t know is which nations around the world are really driving the ecological damages and which are paying the price.” Norgaard said that the largest environmental impact by far is from climate change, which has been assessed in previous studies. The current study broadens the assessment to include other significant human activities with environmental costs and thus provides a context for the earlier studies. The study found, for example, that while deforestation and agricultural intensification primarily impact the host country, the impacts from climate change and ozone depletion are spread widely over all. “Low-income countries will bear significant burdens from climate change and ozone depletion. But these environmental problems have been overwhelmingly driven by emission of greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting chemicals by the rest of the world,” Srinivasan said. Scientists predict climate change will increase the severity of storms and extreme weather, including prolonged droughts and flooding, with an increase in infectious diseases. Ozone depletion mostly impacts health, with increases expected in cancer rates, cataracts and blindness. Overfishing and conversion of mangrove swamps to shrimp farming were other areas in which rich nations were judged to be burdening poor ones. “Seafood derived from depleted fish stocks in low-income country waters ultimately ends up on the plates of consumers in middle-income and rich countries,” Srinivasan said. Mangrove destruction eliminated storm protections, the group added, which some say was a major factor in the huge casualty foll from 2005’s Southeast Asian tsunami. When all the impacts are added up, the portion of the “footprint” of high-income nations that is falling on the low-income countries is greater than the financial debt recognized for low income countries, which has a net present value of 1.8 trillion in 2005 international dollars, Srinivasan said. (International dollars are U.S. dollars adjusted to account for the different purchasing power of different currencies.) “The ecological debt could more than offset the financial debt of low-income nations,” she said. Interestingly, middle-income nations may have an impact on poor nations equivalent to that of rich nations, the study found. While poor nations impact other income tiers also, their effect on rich nations was found to be less than a third of the impact in the other direction.