JOHANNESBURG – The United Nations’ recent 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) in Durban, South Africa succeeded in renewing the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions. But the meeting also highlighted the two major problems that plague international environmental negotiations. The first, unscientific skepticism, has an impact on the second, collective-action failure. Ultimately, only legislative bodies have the power to overcome this failure.
Skepticism regarding the need for environmental action arises from the relationship between environmental degradation and per capita income. According to the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC), degradation and pollution increase enormously at the early stages of economic growth. But, above a certain per capita income threshold, that trend reverses itself: at high income levels, economic growth correlates with environmental improvement, leading to the dubious conclusion that it might be possible to achieve sustainable growth without deviating from “business as usual” (maintaining current emissions levels).
This theory informs some countries’ reluctance to commit to the Kyoto Protocol’s second term. But it is clearly wrong. The United States continues to have the world’s highest per capita emissions levels, at 19 tons of CO2 per person annually, even though average US annual income, at $42,385 per capita, is also among the highest in the world. Clearly, wealth in itself is no guarantee of reduced CO2 emissions.
Likewise, China’s annual per capita income is $5,450, but it emits only 4.7 tons of CO2 per person (though, overall, it is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases). South Africans earn an average income of $8,857 per capita, but they emit a disproportionate 9.4 tons of CO2 per person.