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Developing Nations: "Our Pollution is Your Consumption"

MPRC Faculty Associate Klaus Hubacek demonstrates how material consumption in rich countries is fueled by pollution and environmental destruction in the developing world

Excess consumption in wealthier countries is directly responsible for environmental degradation and poor health in other parts of the world, according to Dr. Klaus Hubacek. Hubacek uses big data and GPS technology to map socioeconomic data, toxic pollution, and health outcomes in order to show how consumption patterns in one part of the world impact environmental conditions in another.

Dr. Hubacek recently completed a project showing the connections between countries’ level of development and their emissions, respiratory diseases, and mortality rates. Wealthier countries are often able to keep pollution levels low by “outsourcing” their dirtier manufacturing practices to places with cheaper labor and looser environmental regulations. Many of the goods produced in developing countries are ultimately consumed elsewhere, leaving local people to suffer the environmental and health effects of dirty manufacturing while the goods they produce are enjoyed by someone else.

Pollution outsourcing also happens within countries, as companies in wealthier regions relocate their manufacturing to poorer areas. In China, for example, manufacturing is moving from the more affluent coastal provinces to poorer inland regions in order to reduce costs and take advantage of weaker environmental regulations. In the United States there are significant regional differences in manufacturing, pollution, and consumption.

Dr. Hubacek is currently working on a project to build a global map of cities and their development characteristics. Since statistics on urban development are not available for some parts of the world, night light data will serve as a proxy for development. The map will show cities’ levels of CO2 and other toxic emissions.

Research that explores the complex linkages between consumption patterns, global supply chain networks, and environmental and health outcomes is an important step towards understanding how lifestyles and local consumption activities are shaped by local factors, and how these translate into environmental impacts across the world.