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Pathways of human development and carbon emissions embodied in trade

Nature Climate Change volume 2, pages 8185 (2012) | Download Citation


It has long been assumed that human development depends on economic growth, that national economic expansion in turn requires greater energy use and, therefore, increased greenhouse-gas emissions. These interdependences are the topic of current research. Scarcely explored, however, is the impact of international trade: although some nations develop socio-economically and import high-embodied-carbon products, it is likely that carbon-exporting countries gain significantly fewer benefits. Here, we use new consumption-based measures of national carbon emissions1 to explore how the relationship between human development and carbon changes when we adjust national emission rates for trade. Without such adjustment of emissions, some nations seem to be getting far better development ‘bang’ for the carbon ‘buck’ than others, who are showing scant gains for disproportionate shares of global emissions. Adjusting for the transfer of emissions through trade explains many of these outliers, but shows that further socio-economic benefits are accruing to carbon-importing rather than carbon-exporting countries. We also find that high life expectancies are compatible with low carbon emissions but high incomes are not. Finally, we see that, despite strong international trends, there is no deterministic industrial development trajectory: there is great diversity in pathways, and national histories do not necessarily follow the global trends.

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J.T.R.’s start-up research fund from Brown University was critical in the completion of this work. We thank J. Karstensen of CICERO for help with Fig. 1.

Author information


  1. Sustainability Research Institute and Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Maths/Earth and Environment Building, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK

    • Julia K. Steinberger
  2. Institute of Social Ecology Vienna, Alpen-Adria University, 29 Schottenfeldgasse, A-1070, Austria

    • Julia K. Steinberger
  3. Center for Environmental Studies, Brown University, Box 1943, 135 Angell Street, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA

    • J. Timmons Roberts
  4. Center for International Climate and Environmental Research—Oslo (CICERO), PB 1129 Blindern, 0318 Oslo, Norway

    • Glen P. Peters
  5. Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia, Norwich Research Park, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

    • Giovanni Baiocchi


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J.K.S. and J.T.R. designed the research; J.K.S. and G.B. conducted the analysis; G.P.P. provided the consumption-based carbon data and feedback on its analysis; J.K.S., J.T.R. and G.P.P. wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Julia K. Steinberger.

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