Is China Beginning to Slide Down the Environmental Kuznets Curve?

More than two decades ago economics scholars noted that when incomes begin to rise pollution gets worse - until it doesn't. Income and pollution data from around the world have revealed that there are various per capita income thresholds at which air and water pollutants begin to decline. This discovery has been dubbed the Environmental Kuznets Curve. See stylized example below.

In other words, economic growth correlates with a cleaner natural environment, i.e., richer becomes cleaner. The folks who put together the doomsaying The Limits to Growth back in 1972 concluded that if humans were somehow able to overcome all other "limits" finally pollution would do us all in. It turns out that they were making this exponentialist prediction just as a wealthier United States was reaching the per capita income thresholds at which citizens begin to demand better environmental quality.

In today's New York Times there is an interesting article reporting the growing success of China's environmental movement against increased pollution. Massive local protests managed to stop a copper smelter from being built. This is not an isolated incident:

In a country infamous for its polluted air and water, the protests were only the latest in a series of large, sometimes violent demonstrations that appear to be having some success in pushing China to impose more stringent safeguards on new manufacturing and mining projects.

“The standards for environmental protection are higher and higher, from the public and also from the government,” said Zhao Zhangyuan, a retired environmental protection official who has successfully campaigned for the last several years to block the construction of a large trash incinerator in a prosperous Beijing neighborhood.

Even as Chinese people demonstrate an increasing willingness to challenge local authorities, financial penalties are on the rise for Chinese companies and their owners who plan projects perceived as hazardous.

The reductions in pollution are not automatic, but result from a public that demands that the trade-offs between income growth and environmental quality be shifted. As University of California, San Diego economist Richard Carson observes the explanations for the relationship between higher incomes producing lower levels of pollution...

...revolve around good government, effective regulation, and diffusion of technological change. These factors tend to be related in a diffuse manner with higher income and suggest it is likely, but not inevitable, that a society will choose to reduce pollution levels as it becomes wealthier.

Likely, but not inevitable? Whether or not China slides down the EKC toward less pollution will depend in large measure on the government becoming more transparent and responsive.

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  • Brett L||

    Hmm. US emissions are down. If China and European emissions have peaked, it seems pretty likely we can test the CO2 theory of climate change within the next 20-50 years.

  • BakedPenguin||

    No, because there will be "lingering effects" - or some such shit - from our rape of Gaia. It's always the humans fault, especially those criminals who do ...business.

  • Brett L||

    I know. "Forget it, Jake. Its Chinatown."

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Environmental reform does not come from grassroots pressure by better-off citizenry that have the time and money to exert influence. It comes from the Top Men that run the state of China, Tom Friedman told me so.

  • John||

    If the price of curbing pollution is prosperity, that is a price no Green is ever going to be willing to pay.

  • Tman||

    But didn't you hear John? The earth is full.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_....._full.html

    See? THE EARTH IS FULL.

    I'm not sure this isn't Tulpy making this talk.

  • John||

    What a fucking ignorant murderous jackass. If it is full, how about that guy off himself to make some room.

  • Tman||

    The best part is about a million times during his speech he says "The experts say" and "the statistics show" but yet never names any of the experts nor any of the statistics, he just assumes that you'll believe him.

    Such an ass.

  • The Hammer||

    Come on, Tulpa's not that bad. Usually.

  • ||

    Ah Fuck. I got to 55 sec, felt the hair on the back of my neck standing up and clicked that shit off.

    We can kill two birds with one stone here; reduce the population and save the lives of animals. Eat greenies. Hmmm, that would make 'soilent green' a double entendre.

  • Brett L||

    Nah. I wouldn't feed 'em to pigs. Dump 'em in the ocean and let the crabs get fat on them.

  • rts||

    Here's some antidote for that.

  • Tman||

    Thanks for that, rts. Good stuff.

  • ||

    I don't necessarily think there's anything wrong with this, but isn't this a variation on "I got mine, FU?"

    Pollution was fine as long as group A was making money, but now that group A is doing OK, they're willing to reduce group B's income potential for lower pollution.

  • Mumu Bobby||

    But why take a chance when we could bomb every Chinese coal fired power plant and make Gaia smile? I bet the Chinese haven't gotten used to their 'on the cusp of' prosperity yet so when we take it away it will hardly be noticed.

  • Dave Gardner||

    Hmm. It actually appears to me that the improvements in environmental quality enabled by our rising affluence were short-lived. Today we can't eat the fish, our water turns boys into girls, we're mucking up the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans, creating garbage patches and dead zones in the oceans, etc. So much for the wonders of wealth and economic growth!

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  • econmagic||

    Despite some positive signs, I think there is more wishfull thinking involved here than reasonable expectations.
    Truth is that the world is in a unsustainability driven stagnation, and as things become harder as a result, the opposite of what needs to happen, will happen.
    We will abandon the environment and sustainability, and we will undercut each other as we compete for investment capital.
    While in China an environmental movement succeeded in imposing its will, which is in fact a rare victory, given the magnitude of environmental mismanagement there, in the US, tea partiers are demanding that the EPA be dismantled.
    In EU, there is a definite trend of turning their backs on the unilateral self sacrifice in the name of global sustainability they engaged in for the last few decades.
    Much of the developing world is still in the middle of claiming its right to polute in order to get ahead (climate justice).
    In the absence of a global mechanism to promote sustainability, the club of Rome will be proven right eventually.
    http://zoltansustainableecon.b.....rtant.html

  • Dave Gardner||

    Yes, econmagic. Glad to see some sanity here.

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