The primacy of technology for reducing pollution
Posted by Daniel Hall on January 2, 2008
We’ve discussed the environmental Kuznet’s curve (EKC) here at CT previously, most directly in a post where I worried that if emissions were being reduced primarily through offshoring manufacturing then eventually the world was going to run out of places to shove their pollution off on. Arik Levinson allays those fears today with an excellent post at VoxEU describing his results in a new working paper. He examines manufacturing emissions in the U.S. between 1972 and 2001, which declined by 58% while manufacturing output simultaneously increased by 71%. He estimates that 60% of the reductions in U.S. emissions between 1972 and 2001 have come from improvements in technology; at most 28% of the emissions reductions have been produced by international trade (increases in net imports). This is good news, because it implies that improved manufacturing and pollution control technologies should be able to lower the environmental impact of manufacturing regardless of where it occurs. In Levinson’s words:
If the 75% reduction in pollution from US manufacturing resulted from increased international trade, the pundits and protestors might have a case. Environmental improvements might be said to have imposed large, unmeasured environmental costs on the countries from which those goods are imported. And more importantly, the improvements in the US would not be replicable by all countries indefinitely, because the poorest countries in the world will never have even poorer countries from which to import their pollution-intensive goods. The US clean-up would simply have been the result of the US coming out ahead in an environmental zero-sum game, merely shifting pollution to different locations. However, if the US pollution reductions come from technology, nothing suggests those improvements cannot continue indefinitely and be repeated around the world. The analyses here suggest that most the pollution reductions have come from improved technology, that the environmental concerns of antiglobalization protesters have been overblown, and that the pollution reduction achieved by US manufacturing will replicable by other countries in the future.
Much more, including a cool graph, at Levinson’s original post. Do read it.
H/T: Free Exchange, of which further discussion in a subsequent post.