Why environmentalists can’t ignore development economics, and two books to get us started

Picture rural Ghana: Orange-brown yam fields with hand-piled dirtmounds stretch for miles in any direction, a silent testament to the fact that half the country’s population makes its living from agriculture. The farmers wait for rain; the yams need it – but for all of its life-giving properties, it complicates life when it comes, carving deep gullies into dirt roads and bringing anopheles mosquitoes and their bellyfuls of the malaria parasite, which kills nearly one million people annually.

The developing world is tightly intertwined with the environment. Indeed, the U.N. calls ecosystems “the GDP of the poor,” because of the dependence this portion of society has on the environment. Now consider just how many people this portion represents: more than half of the earth’s population earns less than $3,000 per year. 

With paved roads, financial metropoles and first-world medical care it’s easy to forget how visceral our connection to the environment is. But our task as environmentalists–understanding the complex relations between humans and the environment–cannot be accomplished without a close look at the developing world.

Though academic articles within the discipline can be daunting, two excellent, accessible books covering development economics research have been released this year. Written in a narrative style, Karlan and Appel’s More than Good Intentions and Banerjee and Duflo’s Poor Economics summarize key developments in the past decade. The authors are all involved in two cutting-edge development research organizations: Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). IPA and J-PAL have pioneered the use of randomized controlled trials, methodology borrowed from medical trials that has brought the rigor of hard science to development research.

Important reading for all environmentalists.

Digging deeper into time trends in international trade and CO2 emissions

In a recent study on trade and the environment, the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy conducted a pilot time trend analysis, painting a clearer picture of the complex relationship between country-level CO2emissions and trade intensity. The analysis examines changes in trade intensity (as seen through trade as a percent of GDP) alongside two measures of CO2 emissions—CO2 per capita and CO2 per GDP. The former CO2 measure indicates emissions intensity per person, while the latter indicates the emissions intensity of the economy.

Time trends show that the most common phenomenon is a decline in emissions per GDP with increasing trade intensity, an indication that economies become more carbon efficient as trade becomes a greater portion of GDP. However, the data also reveal a troubling trend among countries: emissions per capita most commonly increase with increasing trade, an indication that trade might be harmful in terms of emissions.

co2 per capita co2 per gdpco2 per gdp

The exciting news—at least for those interested in trade and environmental quality—is that this trend is by no means universal. Many countries have managed decreasing emissions per capita with increases in trade intensity. This elite group includes many European nations—Germany, France, the UK, Sweden and Denmark—as well as several countries in the Americas—Belize, Colombia, and Cuba.

While considerable work is still needed help deepen understanding of the complicated relationships between trade and the environment and while the statistical findings do not support drawing conclusions about causation, it is interesting to pose the question – what are these nations doing differently?

Materials for the study can be downloaded below:
Executive Summary.
Press Release.

Full Report.