Measuring the environmental impacts of nations



A study released on January 22 suggests the environmental damage caused by rich nations on poor nations exceeds $1.8 trillion, while the impact of poor nations on their richer counterparts is less than one third of that amount. The study is the first-ever global accounting of the dollar costs of countries' ecological footprints.

The study, led by former University of California, Berkeley, research fellow Thara Srinivasan, assessed the impacts of agricultural intensification and expansion, deforestation, over fishing, loss of mangrove swamps and forests, ozone depletion and climate change during a 40-year period, from 1961 to 2000.

The calculation of the ecological footprints of the world's low, middle and high-income nations drew upon assessments by environmental economists who have tried to attach monetary figures to environmental damage, plus data from the recent United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and World Bank reports.

Where Ecological Footprints Fall
Upper bound footprints of income groups on other groups (trillions 2005 international $)

Because of the monumental nature of such an accounting, the UC Berkeley researchers limited their study to the six listed areas of human activity. Impacts of activities that are difficult to assess, such as loss of habitat and biodiversity and the effects of industrial pollution, were ignored. Because of this, the researchers believe that the estimated financial costs in the report are a minimum.

'We think the measured impact is conservative. And given that it's conservative, the numbers are very striking,' said Srinivasan. 'To our knowledge, our study is the first to really examine where nations' ecological footprints are falling, and it is an interesting contrast to the wealth of nations.'

According to the study, deforestation can exacerbate flooding and soil erosion, affect the water cycle and offshore fisheries and lead to the loss of recreation and of non-timber products such as latex and food sources. Agricultural intensification can lead to drinking water contamination by pesticides and fertilizers, pollution of streams, salinization of croplands and biodiversity loss, among other impacts.

'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. 'The situation is similar for farmed shrimp. For such a small, rare habitat, mangroves, when cut down, exact a surprisingly large cost borne primarily by the poor- and middle-income countries.'

In the case of climate change and ozone depletion, the researchers also estimated the impacts that may be felt through the end of this century.

'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 says.

Climate change is expected to 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. All of these will affect vulnerable low-income countries disproportionately.

According to the study, the ecological debt surpasses the actual financial debt that developing nations owe to developed nations. As a result Srinivasan believes 'the ecological debt could more than offset the financial debt of low-income nations', suggesting that the developed world is in debt to the developing word.

'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 coauthor Richard B. Norgaard, an ecological economist and UC Berkeley professor of energy and resources. 'That, perhaps, is one reason that they are poor. You don't see it until you do the kind of accounting that we do here.'

Norgaard admits that 'there will be a lot of controversy about whether you can even do this kind of study and whether we did it right. A lot of that will just be trying to blindside the study, to not think about it. What we really want to do is challenge people to think about it. And if anything, if you don't believe it, do it yourself and do it better.'

The results of the study become more profound when one realizes roughly four billion people, mostly in developing countries, subsist at the bottom of the economic and social pyramid burdened by the ecological footprint of rich nations.

These people are vulnerable not only to a host of environmental threats including poor air quality, contaminated water and climate change but also the risks associated with poverty, unemployment and social exclusion.

The GLOBE-Net article, Sustainable Cities and the Wealth of Nations discusses a new model for developing cities based on sustainability which could help relieve the burden rich nations place on poor nations.

The 10th Biennial GLOBE Conference and Trade Fair on Business and the Environment will feature a session on building better cities. For more information visit the Globe 2008 website.

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