Economic decline reduces carbon emissions slightly

LONG BEACH, CA - OCTOBER 1: The AES Corporation 495-megawatt Alamitos natural gas-fired power station stands on October 1, 2009 in Long Beach, California. The Obama administration has announced that rather than wait for Congress to act, it has authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to move forward on enacting new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions emitted from hundreds of power plants and large industrial facilities. The move could both force lawmakers to try to reach an agreement on regulating greenhouse gases and bolster US credibility as negotiators prepare for United Nations talks in Copenhagen to produce an international agreement to combat manmade climate change in December. The proposed regulations would take effect as early as 2011. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Nations hoping to curb climate change face a quandary: Economic growth means more planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions.

On the flip side, economic decline means a drop in greenhouse gas emissions as consumers tighten their belts, factories slow down and less money is spent.

A new analysis of data from 1960 to 2008 indicates during economic decline carbon dioxide emissions decline at about half the rate at which they grow when an economy is booming.

"In a sense, economic decline only undoes a little more than half of the carbon dioxide emissions that economic growth adds," said Richard York, a professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oregon who conducted this study.

This result indicates that a country's history -- not just its current economic state -- influences the amount of carbon dioxide it is pumping out. 

For example, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic collapse put some post-Soviet nations on par with some sub-Saharan African nations. While these post-Soviet nations did see their emissions drop, they did not fall as low as emissions in poor nations, like some sub-Saharan countries that had never industrialized, York said. [8 Ways Global Warming Is Already Changing the World]

York has a theory why economic decline does not reverse the gains in carbon dioxide that accompany economic development. Countries in decline, such as the post-Soviet nations, still have the infrastructure and durable goods -- including roads, factories, cars and energy-intensive homes -- that come with economic development. People use these things less, but they still contribute emissions.

This difference in emissions' change during decline versus growth may help explain why emissions do not appear to have declined as much as expected as a result of the global fiscal crisis that began in 2007; however, not all economic and environmental data for this period is in yet, he said.

York identified the asymmetry by looking at changes in gross domestic product, the value of all goods and services produced by a country, for more than 150 nations from 1960 to 2008.

He separated out the positive change, or economic growth, from the negative change, or decline, for all of the countries, and looked to see how that compared with the changes in carbon dioxide at the same time.

York's work was published online in the journal Nature Climate Change today (Oct. 7).

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