Lower emissions, less money, long life?

U. LEEDS (UK) — Countries with high incomes and high carbon emissions do not achieve higher life expectancies than those with moderate incomes and lower carbon emissions, a new study finds.

The finding challenges the assumption that human well-being requires growth in both economic activity and carbon emissions.

Published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the study highlights alternative development plans that place a priority on human well-being and climate protection over demands for economic growth.

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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.

Historically, however, high incomes and high life expectancies have been dependent on increasing emission levels. The apparent conflict between socio-economic development and reducing carbon emissions is at the core of international disagreements over addressing climate change.

A central finding of the new study is that a moderate income, corresponding to a Gross Domestic Product of between $2,000 and 12,000 (US) per capita, is currently a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement for sustainable development—‘necessary’ because no high-income country has carbon emissions below 1 ton of carbon per capita—and ‘not sufficient’ because moderate incomes do not guarantee either high life expectancy or low carbon emissions.

“Some nations are clearly more carbon efficient than others when it comes to enhancing well-being,” says Julia Steinberger, a lecturer in ecological economics at the University of Leeds.

“Understanding national differences in the relationship between human development and carbon footprints is the first step in bringing about more desirable outcomes through active policy interventions.”

The evidence shows that the highest international life expectancies are attainable at a wide range of carbon emissions, from 0.5 ton per capita for Costa Rica to 6.2 tons per capita for the US: more than a factor of 10 apart from each other.

However, the countries with the lowest carbon emissions also had the lowest incomes: low carbon emissions were always incompatible with higher incomes.

“Most scenarios leading to stable and reduced carbon emissions rely on rapid technology shifts, from fossil-based energy to renewable sources, for example,” says Steinberger.

“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.”

The study takes into account the fact that national carbon emissions are affected by international trade. Conventional territorial, or “production-based” emissions are thus corrected by adding imported, and subtracting exported, carbon embedded in imported goods and services.

The study’s analysis shows that such trade-adjusted “consumption-based” emissions are more reflective of national socio-economic benefits than territorial emissions because the benefits of carbon-emitting activities go to the final consumers of the goods and services, rather than the producers.

“The displacement of carbon emission through trade also has a fairness dimension, since most developed countries are net-importers of carbon from emerging or developing economies,” says Giovanni Baiocchi, senior lecturer in business and climate change at the University of East Anglia.

By examining the pathways of individual countries, the researchers conclude that there is no pre-determined development trend. The diversity of development trajectories indicates that countries may be able to alter their future course.

The findings have implications for emission scenarios based on human development targets rather than economic growth.

“Since countries currently exist with the same life expectancies as the UK and the US, but with a small fraction of their carbon emissions (and incomes), prioritizing economic growth at the expense of climate stability seems less and less defensible.”

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