Unequal Carbon Exchanges: Understanding Pollution Inequalities As Embodied in Global Trade

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 14:15
Location: Hörsaal BIG 2 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Christina PRELL, University of Maryland, USA
Ecological modernization (EM) theory argues that a country’s phases of economic development coincide with that society’s environmental awareness and subsequent care for the environment. Within this framework, environmental reform is seen as resulting from the interplay of economic actors, citizen-consumers, and political actors, such that environmental considerations increasingly become reflected in a country’s economic domain. A criticism often launched at EM theory is that it tends to disregard the larger, global economy in which environmental change occurs. In contrast, Ecological Unequal Exchange (EUE) theory considers the larger context of global trade in which countries are situated, and argues that more developed or ‘core’ countries accrue larger environmental benefits through their unequal trade patterns with less-developed, more peripheral ones. In this paper, we bring together both EM and EUE theories to consider carbon emission transfers occurring through trade among 186 countries over a 20 year period. We define a positive carbon emission transfer (CET) as referring to a country having more carbon embodied in its imports than its exports, and a negative CET referring to the opposite. Our findings show a U-shaped curvilinear relationship between countries’ GDP per capita and their CET, suggesting that countries are typically heavy net importers of carbon in early phases of economic development, become balanced or even net exporters of carbon in middle stages of development, and then return to being heavy net importers of carbon in later stages of development. We reflect on these findings in the context of Ecological Modernization and Ecological Unequal Exchange theories.