Growth-Based Global Economy Overwhelms Environmental Health
By Brigid Fitzgerald Reading
The global economy grew 3.8 percent in 2011, a drop from 5.2 percent in 2010. Economists had anticipated a slowdown, but this was even less growth than expected, thanks to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, unrest in oil-producing countries, the debt crisis in Europe, and a stagnating recovery in the U.S. As richer economies struggle to recover from the financial crisis of 2008–09, poorer countries are facing high food prices and rising youth unemployment. Meanwhile, growing income inequality and environmental disruption are challenging conventional notions of economic health.
The total value of goods and services produced worldwide in 2011 was $77.2 trillion, twice as much as 20 years ago. The global economy expanded by an average of 4 percent each year in the decade leading up to the 2008 slowdown and the 2009 contraction. Industrial economies typically grew by about 3 percent annually in the 10 years before the recession but only 1.6 percent in 2011. Developing economies, which grew by an average of roughly 6 percent annually in the decade before the recession, grew by 6.2 percent last year.
Developing Asia was responsible for 25 percent of global economic output in 2011. China’s economy, the world’s second largest, grew 9.2 percent in 2011, producing $11.1 trillion in goods and services. Yet this was a much slower expansion than its pre-recession rate of 14 percent in 2007. India, whose gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 7.4 percent to $4.4 trillion in 2011, surpassed Japan to become the world’s third largest economy. (See data.)
The 2011 growth in developing Asian economies was dampened somewhat by the disaster in Japan, which disrupted global supply chains in automotives, electronics, and other sectors. Japan’s economy also took a hit, contracting by 0.9 percent to $4.3 trillion in 2011.
Many industrial countries are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession. Economic output in several of them, notably the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Russia, was some 10 percent lower in 2011 than it would have been without the crisis, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates. The 2011 slowdown in industrial countries also decreased the flow of wealth to developing economies.
An intricate web of borrowing among European Union members set the stage for a debt crisis, which made global financial markets more volatile in 2011. A few countries, notably Greece, have racked up debts they are unable to repay. Lending countries, especially Germany—the world’s fifth largest economy, with a GDP of $3.0 trillion in 2011—have been reluctant to bail them out. Europe’s troubles continued into 2012 when credit rating agencies downgraded 10 countries, including France, Italy, and Spain, in January and February.
The U.S. remained the world’s largest economy in 2011 with a GDP of $14.8 trillion, but economic activity was weaker than expected as government stimulus spending was insufficient to boost private demand. The U.S. is one of a few rich countries where unemployment rates were still higher in 2011 than before the recession, and families’ income expectations were extremely low. Standard & Poor’s fueled concerns about U.S. fiscal health when it downgraded the country’s debt rating in August, and uncertainty about how policymakers would address these challenges strained global financial markets. Slow growth in the largest economic power dragged down the global economy as a whole.
While not hit as hard by the Great Recession, developing countries faced challenges in 2011 from youth unemployment—which has been on the rise globally in recent years—and high food prices. Bad weather, low grain stocks, and high oil prices helped raise the cost of food, a particular burden on poor families who spend a large share of their incomes on it. High food prices can contribute to global food insecurity and poverty; the World Bank estimates that high food prices in late 2010 pushed an extra 44 million people into extreme poverty. These factors likely helped trigger the revolutions that swept across the Middle East and North Africa. That unrest contributed to high oil prices, which slowed consumption in industrial economies. Oil prices spiked to $120 a barrel in April, but had declined to around $100 by August.
Qatar, where more than half of the nation’s income comes from oil and natural gas, has the world’s highest average income—almost $103,000 per person. The U.S. and China have average incomes (as measured in GDP per person) of $48,000 and $8,000 per person, respectively. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, a failing state plagued by government corruption and violent conflict, has the world’s lowest average income, at less than $350 per person. Thus the world’s highest national average income is now almost 300 times the lowest.
In December 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that the gap between the rich and the poor has widened in many industrial countries in recent decades. For example, in the U.S. between 1984 and 2008 (the latest year for which data are available), incomes among the richest 10 percent of households grew almost 4 times faster than incomes of the poorest tenth. China has also grown more unequal in recent years despite booming economic growth. Remarkably, Brazil has reduced inequality and poverty simultaneously over the past decade as it raised incomes among both the rich and the poor.
When income distribution is very unequal, social mobility is limited and economic growth contributes less to reducing poverty. High income inequality also threatens political stability and endangers the economy as a whole. A 2011 article published in the IMF magazine Finance & Development found that increased income equality is even more important for sustaining economic growth than openness to trade, democratic governance, foreign investment, competitive exchange rates, or external debt.
Our current economic system requires continued growth to keep governments and families afloat, but the natural systems that support our economy cannot sustain endless consumption. GDP tallies economic output but does not reflect environmental limits, sustainable yields, or how today’s environmental damage undermines future prosperity. And it fails to distinguish economic growth that alleviates poverty and strengthens society from that which pollutes the environment, endangers health, or disproportionately enriches large corporations and the very wealthy.
Several indices offer more nuanced measurements of well-being. For instance, in 2011 Norway topped the U.N. Development Programme’s Human Development Index, which incorporates life expectancy, years of schooling, and average income. The U.S. ranked fourth and China came in at number 101 out of 187 countries. The U.S. performs less favorably on indices that deduct for negative environmental impact.
The Global Footprint Network (GFN) calculates humanity’s Ecological Footprint, comparing the consumption of resources to the earth’s ability to replenish them. If the earth’s natural systems are like an endowment, then its annual regenerative capacity is like interest earned—the amount that can be spent each year without depleting the principal. GFN found that by 2007, humanity’s ecological footprint exceeded the earth’s yearly “interest” by 50 percent. Together, the U.S. and China consume almost half of what nature can sustainably provide.
In our current growth-based economic system, rising affluence and population growth mean increased consumption, environmental destruction, and waste production. This western model of development is failing—if everyone on earth shared the lifestyle of the average American, we would need more than 4.5 planets to sustain us, according to GFN. Without a more comprehensive vision of economic health and better ways to measure it, we are flying blind on a path to economic decline and collapse.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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