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Link between carbon footprints & affluence has far-reaching policy implications

By Sustainability Office on October 2, 2017
-Seamus Crowley ’18

Greenhouse gas emissions, specifically the policy surrounding their regulation, are at the forefront of a larger dialogue concerning environmental protections. Often there’s talk of wide-reaching, large-scale “solutions” such as a carbon tax. But according to Andy Pattison, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, these ideas are overgeneralized and don’t always hold the proper people accountable for their emissions.

Pattison, who has a background in public policy as it relates to the environment, has recently been interested in studying the effect that affluence has on the amount of emissions an individual community puts out. “I’m interested in finding a way to unpack the role of carbon emissions on a local level for use in policy”, Pattison explained. Working alongside his colleagues Matthew Clement and Robby Habans, from Texas State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign respectively, Pattison is working to publish a series of five papers that address this topic. The second in the series to be published came out in September of 2017. This paper, titled “Scaling down the ‘Netherlands Fallacy’: a local-level quantitative study of the effect of affluence on the carbon footprint across the United States”, was published in Environmental Science and Policy.

An important component of this paper is that, as Pattison distinguishes, greenhouse gas emissions can be broken down into two categories: production and consumption emissions. Production emissions are created via the manufacturing of goods, whereas consumption emissions are created through sectors such as energy and transportation. Therefore the “Netherlands Fallacy” can be described wherein, according to Pattison’s paper, “a wealthy developed nation like the Netherlands may appear to have minimal environmental impacts because many of the products consumed within its borders are produced elsewhere”.

By looking at local emissions in the U.S. through the lens of the “Netherlands Fallacy” a lot can be gathered about what groups of people are responsible for certain emissions in different areas, Pattison explained. They found a positive correlation between consumption emissions and the affluence of an area; hence, as wealth increases so do the carbon emissions. However, the relationship between production emissions and affluence is more complicated. In this case the relationship can be represented by an inverted-U; as affluence rises, production emissions rise as well – until a point –  then production emissions start to fall as affluence continues to rise. Therefore, the authors reach the conclusion that more affluent communities are displacing significant, carbon-intensive production operations onto poorer communities. Pattison labels this as the environmental inequality Kuznets curve in order to reflect the disproportional burden of emissions that less affluent communities have to bear.

The most striking finding of Pattison’s paper, however, is the relationship that a community’s carbon footprint has to their affluence. The impact of affluence on emissions is pronounced to an extremely high degree when you factor in both consumption and production variables. In fact, affluence is even more strongly correlated to an intense carbon footprint than it is to consumption emissions. Understanding this direct link between emissions and affluence is important, but as Pattison points out, realizing the impact on emissions policy is critical.

Pattison notes that in order to properly address the impending climate crisis the world as a whole needs to reduce its carbon emissions. However, when you consider the idea of a widespread carbon tax for example, it’s clear now why such an initiative is too general. “When looking at a policy based on penalty or benefit you need to be careful, otherwise you might end up charging the wrong people”, noted Pattison. In order to properly and fairly reduce carbon emissions we have to look at which communities are creating the largest carbon footprint and localize the burden, otherwise the economic strain can begin to fall on those who deserve it the least.

It can be easy to get lost in the research of this work, but it’s important to remember that it’s addressing real-world problems for which we need to work to find solutions. Professor Pattison hopes that in moving forward with the remaining papers in the series addressing this important relationship he and his colleagues can develop a conceptual framework to adequately relate their theories and findings in order to directly inform carbon policy. Pattison sums up his initiative best by saying, “We need to match the goals we have as a society with the goals we have on how to deal with climate change in order to be the most successful”.


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