[The] dirtiest water and air are not found in the rich countries, rather they are found in the developing nations. As pollution is rapidly becoming a global issue, worldwide prosperity should be viewed as the solution to, not the cause of, the problem. —
Most people know that energy production causes considerable environmental damage. And indeed, energy production, distribution, and use are responsible for much of the damage that humanity inflicts on the environment. Globally, energy production generates prodigious amounts of air pollution, water pollution, habitat destruction, landscape destruction, wildlife mortality, and much more.
But what people are often confused about is the nature of the relationship between energy use and environmental damage over time. Since the time of Paul Ehrlich and , not to mention Al Gore’s , environmental activists have asserted that there is a linear relationship between energy and the environment and that it’s a bad one. In their equation, more humanity, plus more energy use, automatically equates to more damage. As Ehrlich once famously opined about the possibility for unlimited energy for humanity, it would be “like giving a machine gun to an idiot child.” , another environmental activist, said that “it’s the worst thing that could happen to our planet.”
The Environmental Kuznets Curve
But the above view of the relationship between energy and the environment is both naïve and misleading. Economists have long observed that there is a better way to look at the triad relationship of humans, energy, and the environment, and that is a much more optimistic one, based on observations of how energy’s impact on the environment changes as countries go through development. Rather than displaying a linear relationship between energy use and environmental degradation, the real relationship looks more like an inverted letter U. This relationship is generally called the environmental Kuznets curve, or the environmental transition curve.
Figure 1 is a graphic representation of the Kuznets curve. The bottom axis is economic growth, and the upright axis represents environmental use of a natural resource such as timber, water, or soil. The upright axis might also represent the use of environmental services such as diluting waste products in the air or the service one gets from a river’s ability to break down a certain quantity of waste in a manner that harms neither fish nor people.
Air Pollution and the Kuznets Curve
For an example of the Kuznets curve, let’s take air pollution — the production and use of fossil fuels is a major source of air pollutants around the world. From mining to refining, virtually every step in energy production, conversion, distribution, and, often, use results in the emission of a variety of air pollutants. These pollutants include coarse and fine particulate matter, oxides of nitrogen, sulfur oxides, ozone precursors, and yes, some of the greenhouse gases as well, including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. Air pollution takes a significant toll on human health, causing respiratory and cardiovascular problems in sensitive members of the population. And in the early days of our development, we certainly did foul our air. Who hasn’t heard of the infamous smog of Los Angeles in the 1950s?
But here in the United States, we are long past the point of perception, which began around 1900. And the cleanup began shortly thereafter. As researcher , a student of environmental transitions, points out, “By 1912 the federal Bureau of Mines reported that 23 of the 28 cities that had populations in excess of 200,000 were making some effort to control smoke.” And air pollution levels continue to decline sharply as newer technologies and pollution control devices combine to make our system of energy production cleaner every year. Figure 2 shows how air pollution levels in the United States have improved, even as our energy use continues to increase.
Energy is clearly not environmentally benign — our use of energy pollutes air and water, degrades land and sea, and more. However, understanding the environmental transition curve suggests that as societies continue to develop, their environmental impact will reduce over time. Indeed, the environmental transition curve suggests that the single best thing we could do to minimize energy’s impact on the environment is to not only maximize our own economic growth but also to help developing countries increase theirs, allowing them to switch to ever cleaner, less polluting forms of energy.
Caveats apply, of course — some economists argue that the environmental transition curve does not apply to all pollutants and all societies and that while it might work for local-area pollutants and resource protection, it may not work for global pollutants, such as soot or other greenhouse gases. They fear that certain wealthy countries might bring pollution to other parts of the world, as various businesses are forced to relocate to remain competitive.
That may well be true, but it does not negate the idea of an environmental transition; it simply lengthens the time it takes to turn things around for certain global pollutants, because remediation then becomes dependent on other countries passing through their own environmental transitions.
Kenneth P. Green is a resident scholar at the . This essay is derived from the introduction of , a supplementary text for college students, published by AEI Press.