Confusion Over How to Criticize Greenhouse Gas Emissions

When environmentalists get all concerned about the negative influence of human activity over climate patterns around the globe, they typically point an accusatory finger at those nations with the highest levels of aggregate greenhouse gas production. Because greenhouse gasses are a direct side effect of economic activity, the guilty countries are always those with the largest economies. For example, a recent Global Post news article by Sarah Wolfe notes that the four biggest aggregate emitters of greenhouse gasses per year are China (6 trillion tons), the U.S. (5.9), Russia (1.7) and India (1.3).

However, using only the aggregate levels of greenhouse gas emissions to identify which countries are behaving as bad world citizens misses an important point: If one accepts the theory that mankind’s economic activity generates the undesirable side effect of global warming, the only way to reduce these aggregate numbers is to reduce the overall level of economic activity. This implies convincing national governments that they should produce less food, clothing, shelter, education and health care for their nation’s citizens to enjoy.

Most environmentalists would agree that imposing a maximum level of material prosperity upon each nation’s government is a patently absurd idea. Therefore, comparing aggregate measures of greenhouse gas emissions is not a very edifying contribution to the global warming debate.

If greater economic activity is essential for raising the material prosperity of a society, and the level of material prosperity is roughly reflected by a higher level of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, then this means we should be less concerned about reducing aggregate pollution and be more concerned about producing economic prosperity with the smallest environmental footprint. In other words, a much more meaningful statistics would be: Which country produces the least amount of greenhouse gasses per dollar of GDP that is generate for citizens to enjoy?

Using data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) World Economic Database, we can divide the above greenhouse gas emissions statistics by the country’s respective GDP (corrected for purchasing power parity to ensure a more direct comparison). This will reveal the environmental footprint that each nation imposes on the world per unit of economic prosperity created for its citizens.

In this way, if Russia generated $2.0 trillion of GDP in 2012, this means Russia produced 16.25 tons pf greenhouse gasses per dollar prosperity it created for its people. China ($8.2 trillion) produced 0.73 tons of greenhouse gasses per dollar and India ($1.8 trillion) produced 0.72 tons per dollar. The U.S. ($16.2 trillion), that poster child for capitalist countries perennially accused of acting as bad world citizens, produced the lowest level of greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of economic prosperity: just 0.36 tons per dollar of GDP.

Perhaps capitalism is the “greenest” of economic institutional arrangements for creating material prosperity in society. It is worth a look.

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  1. Julie says:

    “Most environmentalists would agree that imposing a maximum level of material prosperity upon each nation’s government is a patently absurd idea.”

    Would they…? These are some of the same folks who think we should have fewer babies so they don’t pollute up the world simply by breathing!