Are welfare states more environmentally-friendly?

If a country provides social safety nets for its citizens, it makes sense that the government might also take good care of the environment. But is this commonly-held idea actually true? According to a new study, there’s little evidence to suggest that “kinder, gentler societies” are also more environmentally-friendly.

There are several arguments to support the idea that countries with more generous social policies are greener. For one thing, their citizens tend to favor taking care of the entire population, and environmental health benefits many people. Plus, if the government is spending a lot of money on “human capital” such as education, it might have less to dole out to “physical capital”-oriented industries that generate pollution.

On the other hand, the study authors point out that many arguments can be made against this link as well. Greece and Italy, for example, offer strong social safety nets but “are mediocre to poor environmental performers,” the team writes in Environmental Science & Technology. And the connections between social policies, economics, and green behavior are even muddier. If the social policies slow down economic growth, the country might be stuck with old, heavily-polluting technology. If the policies boost economic growth, the country might trample the environment in its rush to produce and consume more goods.

To investigate, the researchers examined data on 68 countries, including social policy index rankings and three indicators of environmental performance. Overall, they found it “difficult to detect a systematic correlation” between these variables. Even when they looked only at the effect on climate change-related performance, such as carbon dioxide emissions, the evidence didn’t support a link between social policies and climate-related action.

It’s possible that “kinder” countries are better at addressing certain environmental issues, such as water pollution, the authors say. But in general, they write, governments of these nations “would be ill advised to hope for positive ‘spillover effects’ of social policies into the environmental realm.” Roberta Kwok | 25 October 2013

Source: Bernauer, T. and T. Bohmelt. 2013. Are economically “kinder, gentler societies” also greener? Environmental Science & Technology doi: 10.1021/es403362m.

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