The Debt of Nations and the Distribution of Ecological Impacts from Human Activities

U. T. Srinivasan, S. P. Carey, E. Hallstein, P. A. T. Higgins, A. C. Kerr, L. E. Koteen, A. B. Smith, R. Watson, J. Harte, R. B. Norgaard, (2008). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105, 1768-1773.

As human impacts to the environment accelerate, disparities in the distribution of damages between rich and poor nations mount. Globally, environmental change is dramatically affecting the flow of ecosystem services, but the distribution of ecological damages and their driving forces have not been estimated previously. Here we give conservative, considerably partial estimates of the environmental costs of human activities over 1961-2000 in six major categories: climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, agricultural intensification and expansion, deforestation, overfishing, and mangrove conversion. We calculate total costs ranging up to $47 trillion (net present value, 2005 international $), 92% of the year 2000 world GDP, purchasing power parity-adjusted. By quantitatively connecting the costs borne by rich, middle-income, and poor nations to activities by the three groups, we find striking imbalances. Up to 87% of the impacts of climate change and ozone depletion that are predicted to be borne by low-income nations have been directly driven by emissions from the middle- and high-income groups. Indeed, due to rich countries’ disproportionate emissions of greenhouse gases, poor nations may bear climate impacts 68% more than their year 2000 foreign debt. In a world increasingly connected ecologically and economically, our analysis is an early step towards reframing issues of development, globalization, and international debt in accordance with true ecological costs.