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date: 04 March 2021

The Environmental Kuznets Curvelocked

  • David I. SternDavid I. SternCrawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University

Summary

The environmental Kuznets curve (EKC) is a hypothesized relationship between environmental degradation and GDP per capita. In the early stages of economic growth, pollution emissions and other human impacts on the environment increase, but beyond some level of GDP per capita (which varies for different indicators), the trend reverses, so that at high income levels, economic growth leads to environmental improvement. This implies that environmental impacts or emissions per capita are an inverted U-shaped function of GDP per capita. The EKC has been the dominant approach among economists to modeling ambient pollution concentrations and aggregate emissions since Grossman and Krueger introduced it in 1991 and is even found in introductory economics textbooks. Despite this, the EKC was criticized almost from the start on statistical and policy grounds, and debate continues. While concentrations and also emissions of some local pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, have clearly declined in developed countries in recent decades, evidence for other pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, is much weaker. Initially, many understood the EKC to imply that environmental problems might be due to a lack of sufficient economic development, rather than the reverse, as was conventionally thought. This alarmed others because a simplistic policy prescription based on this idea, while perhaps addressing some issues like deforestation or local air pollution, could exacerbate environmental problems like climate change. Additionally, many of the econometric studies that supported the EKC were found to be statistically fragile. Some more recent research integrates the EKC with alternative approaches and finds that the relation between environmental impacts and development is subtler than the simple picture painted by the EKC. This research shows that usually, growth in the scale of the economy increases environmental impacts, all else held constant. However, the impact of growth might decline as countries get richer, and richer countries are likely to make more rapid progress in reducing environmental impacts. Finally, there is often convergence among countries, so that countries that have relatively high levels of impacts reduce them more quickly or increase them more slowly, all else held constant.

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