Kuznets Curves and an Old Tree

There’s an old development theory that is supposed to predict what a country will do with its natural resources, depending on how rich it is. It’s based on the idea of the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), after Simon Kuznets. Stick with me. Basically, the theory says that, during the early stages of a country’s increase in wealth, it increasingly degrades its environment at a faster and faster rate. We can crudely compare, say, the Republic of Congo (which is still desperately poor and retains its vast forest estate) and Ghana (which is wealthier than Congo-Brazzaville, but still poor, and which has traded in much of its forest capital over recent decades). At some point, however, a country should make a transition towards protecting and, later, even restoring its environment. Today, we can see this in some developed countries that have undergone rapid reforestation in recent times. For example, the UK has seen an increase in its forest cover since a low point after the First World War; in fact, the Woodland Trust now aims to actively double native forest cover over the coming decades. Here’s a nice graph of the supposed process:

Assuming it’s a valid concept, we know that an indicator of wealth, such as GDP, should indicate when a country might make the transition to environmental protection. But what, in reality, causes this transition? One intuitively obvious notion is that increasing wealth provides the financial security to allow environmental matters to finally get a look-in.

Importantly, countries often “overshoot”; sympathies for the environment often come far too late, at a price of both the services that natural ecosystems provide and their component biodiversity. Moreover, the loss of primary habitat and its biodiversity is largely irreversible. An important question is therefore what makes some countries able to “transition” efficiently. In turn, this leads to the idea that a key “pressure point” could exist, for the conservation agenda at least, to persuade countries to make the transition in good time.

With all this in mind, I’m currently trying to figure out if this applies to Malaysia, and where Malaysia might sit on this supposed trajectory of development. I present exhibit A:

This is the front page of one of the regional newspapers; in fact, one of the first things I picked up after arriving. What does it mean that on the front page there is a plea to save an old tree? OK, forgive me, but I think this is significant. Combined with the frequent references to “biodiversity” (the Sabah Times trumps even the Guardian on this), as well as the popular knowledge of Sabah’s unique natural heritage that I’ve come across, this seems to show that Malaysian Borneo is thoroughly onboard with the conservation agenda. Has Malaysia, still burdened with extreme poverty, begun to make the Kuznets transition whilst retaining more than 60% forest cover?

Unfortunately, the jury is still out. Much of the remaining forest has been intensively logged (often twice), and is therefore of unknown conservation value (we’re looking into it!). Moreover, the national newspapers are state controlled – most of the articles are about government appointments or planning announcements. It makes for dry reading, I can tell you. Trying to get a sense of the national mood from them is, at best, hard work. At worst, it’s like trying to nail jelly to a tree. Frustratingly unfruitful. Even more importantly, any environmental sympathies at large may well be just lip service to the conservation agenda, when the real motivation is in developing tourism. And tourism and conservation are not always easy bedfellows.

Hopefully, some of this will become clear in the months to come.

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4 Responses to Kuznets Curves and an Old Tree

  1. Felix W says:

    Hey Ollie,

    Nice post. One thing you may have omitted to mention (or maybe I glazed over it in my post-lunch stupor) is that many countries move from harvesting their own natural resources (fish, trees, etc.) to exporting this exploitation to other countries.

    The UK is a prime example. We may be reforesting gradually at home (at least until the government manages to sell off our publically-owned woodland) but this is increasingly at the expense of forest in other parts of the (normally tropical) world. Some huge amount of logs are illegally imported each year, not including the ‘legally’ harvested timber that has enormous consquences for tropical forests. And don’t even get me started about palm oil, beef, soy, biofuels, and various other agricultural commodities which we have the luxury of not producing ourselves…

    There’s a good paper from 2009 on this happening in Vietnam: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/09/03/0904942106.abstract

    “The national-scale reforestation of Vietnam since 1992 is assumed to contribute to this recovery. It is achieved, however, by the displacement of forest extraction to other countries on the order of 49 (34–70) M m3, or ≈39% of the regrowth of Vietnam’s forests from 1987 to 2006. Approximately half of wood imports to Vietnam during this period were illegal.”

    • OllieW says:

      Very good point, Felix. I don’t believe I have ever seen a Kuznet curve that takes into account a “globalised” footprint. It would be interesting to see what shape they are.

      Yep, I read the other day that the UK is the EU’s 3rd biggest importer of illegal timber, Indonesia being a major source. Incidentally, this is related to oil palm because, usually, much of the startup costs of an oil palm outfit are covered by the logging that first takes place.

      There are also important interactions with respect to the gross amount of forest that a given country happens to be endowed with in the first place (Ewers, 2006: http://forestecology.net/Papers/ewers2006_4.pdf). If a country has lots of forest, it doesn’t matter how developed or not it is. It simply won’t be able to make much of an impact (proportionately) on its forest. We should be most concerned with countries that are both a) extremely poor and b) have little forest to start with. For these reasons, the Brazilian Amazon, which always springs to mind when we think of the deforestation problem, is kind of a red herring. It still has more than 80% primary forest cover!

      OK, it’s easy to pick holes in the EKC concept, but another problem is that reforestation has typically taken the form of plantations, rather than diverse, natural forests. China and New Zealand spring to mind here.

      • Felix says:

        Hmmm, not sure I completely agree with you there Ol. Brazil still accounts for nearly 50% of deforestation worldwide! So even though the Amazon still goes on for miles and miles seemingly untouched, that’s a great chunk of forest disappearing every year.

        And according to this (http://news.mongabay.com/2010/0929-hansen_interview.html) Brazil is still 6 in the world when it comes to proportional forest loss, even ahead of Indonesia. I don’t think we can say “deforestation matters less in Brazil than (say) Costa Rica, because the Amazon is so huge”… a tonne of carbon lost to the atmosphere is still a tonne of carbon wherever it comes from.

        Oh yeah, and SAFE and FEC? Love the acronyms!

      • OllieW says:

        I have a paper I’m almost ready to submit which shows that the Amazon deforestation really hasn’t made much of an impact, biodiversity-wise. We’re talking about a 20% decrease over 40 years, and most (vertebrate) species in the Amazon are widely occurring – so the impact just hasn’t been that great. Compare that to the Philippines for example – they’ve lost the vast majority of their forest, mostly in the last century, and the biodiversity loss has been huge. In the Philippines (as an extreme opposite to the Brazilian Amazon), you just have to go to the neighbouring island and everything will be a different species!

        Still, 6th place for Brazil on the proportional list is surprising. And Malaysia is second!?

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