Why Global Warming Spells Rising Global Tensions

Can world economic growth actually reduce the threat of global warming caused by the emission of greenhouse gases? This tantalizing possibility is at least suggested by recent econometric studies that found that several of the most noxious forms of air pollution tend to decline as nations move up the ladder of industrial development. The reason: Although such pollution rises sharply in the initial stages of industrialization, growing incomes eventually raise the demand for health and environmental quality and provide the wherewithal to achieve them.

Unfortunately, however, the prospect for curbing greenhouse gas emissions is far less positive, report economists Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Thomas M. Selden of Syracuse University. In a new study, they focus on the most significant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, or CO2. Unlike many other air pollutants, CO2 is invisible, has little immediate health impact, spreads widely in the global atmosphere, dissipates very slowly over time, and is difficult to abate.

The two economists find that nations do emit less CO2 relative to their output as they grow--that is, the more advanced a nation is, the less it pollutes per unit of gross domestic product. But unlike other pollutants, they find that CO2 pollution does not decline absolutely and that its cumulative presence in the global atmosphere continues to rise.

The researchers conclude that global emissions of CO2 will continue to grow at about 1.8% per year over the next 60 years. Moreover, they find that accelerating or slowing global economic growth by 0.5% a year, an enormous cumulative difference, hardly changes the buildup of the gas in the atmosphere over that time period. "Unless we can find a way to grow without producing carbon dioxide," says Holtz-Eakin, "we're likely to see rising tensions in the decades ahead between high-polluting low-income nations seeking rapid economic growth and developed nations intent on curbing the greenhouse effect."

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