Saturday, August 24, 2013

Ecological Impacts of Country Transformation

Unprecedented economic growth always comes with a cost. Recently I was playing around with some numbers on the HDR website to evaluate human development indicators by country. Some interesting numbers pop up.

Being the curious guy I am, I plotted anthropocentric CO2 emissions as a function of population. This lends a graphic perspective to this detail that some of the smallest countries in the world situated in the middle east rely 100% on fossil fuels to get their energy. U.A.E, Qatar and Kuwait also stand out as the worst performers in the per capita CO2 emissions metric.

The carbon emissions data apparently comes from "World Development Indicators 2012". So I quickly hopped over there and plotted CO2 emissions in metric tons as a function of time.

By 2009 standards, the U.A.E and Qatar were over 3 and 7 times worse respectively in per capita CO2 emissions than an enormous emerging country like China. The good news is the numbers are slowly sloping downwards, however it would be nice to have data from 2009 and 2013 to confirm.

The U.A.E and Qatar have been having massive development projects really only over the last two decades.  Infrastructure in developed countries such as United States and the UK is comparatively older and more mature.  So the question really is whether this data just reflects the normal development patterns of countries modernizing themselves over the time period for which we do have data.

The negative aspects of country transformation patterns maybe seen in another set of ecological health checks called ecological footprint and bio-capacity.

Ecological footprint, measured in global hectares, is defined by the Footprint Network as a measure of how much area of biologically productive land and water an individual, population or activity requires to produce all the resources it consumes and to absorb the waste it generates, using prevailing technology and resource management practices. Because trade is global, an individual or country's Footprint includes land or sea from all over the world.

Bio-capacity, also measured in global hectares, is the capacity of ecosystems to produce useful biological materials and to absorb waste materials generated by humans, using current management schemes and extraction technologies.

Ecological footprint and bio-capacity vs time plots for some countries are given below this post. It is not surprising to see by the green line that the available land per capita required to replenish consumed resources and absorb wastes for all these countries is on a decreasing trend. The point where the two cross each other is called overshoot beyond which there is a bio-capacity deficit to meet a country's footprint. Most, if not all countries, are under visible ecological deficits.

The U.A.E, Qatar and Kuwait have a wide disparity between available resources and per capita resource consumption. I would image that this points to region specific issues such as high immigrant influx, high population growth (UAE's is 12% average!), massive urbanization, expansion and associated development projects and the demands from a difficult desert climate for high amounts of energy for comfortable living. Significant amounts of natural resources are hence imported from outside to drive growth.

Its a good reminder that the monitoring site on a mountain in Hawaii that sets the world's benchmark for CO2 emissions told us in March 2013 that the earth has passed the 400 ppm milestone. The ugliness here is that CO2 could stay up for a long time and nations can't really stop developing. So don't hold your breath. We will keep pumping a lot of gas into the atmosphere and no one really knows what the real consequences are going to be. But we can always manage risk, if not reverse consequences.

Fortunately, the U.A.E is not blind about this issue. There are national initiatives here to try and better understand consumption patterns. All this said, this country is still a big beacon of hope & prosperity for many individuals in the middle east, where extremism and nationalism are destroying nations. In that regard, trade-offs of expansion, trade and of integrating foreign people who come here to live and work will inevitably crop up. It is far worse to sit with arms folded and do nothing about the negative aspects than it is to do something. This is encapsulated in the positive process of change.

Attached plots of ecological footprints. See source


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