A layer of smog covers downtown LA. (Lawrence K. H / Los Angeles Times)
La Cañada High School

Opinion: The climate change and industrialization conundrum

Since the dawn of human civilization, an unspoken rule has almost always been followed. As a population grows, so does their impact on their surroundings and the environment. This holds true for everyone, whether it was the Romans turning fields into farmlands in order to feed the ever-growing population of Rome or the Japanese clearing forests to make room for an expanding Edo.

However, this ability to change the environment drastically increased after the Industrial Revolution as machines made production more and more efficient.

Industrialization is the process by which an economy is transformed from primarily agricultural to one based on the manufacturing of goods. This shift away from agriculture often allows the people of a newly industrializing country to gain new employment opportunities and increase their standard of living drastically.

In fact, industrialization is a necessary step in order for a country to improve the living standards of its citizens by developing its economy. However, this shift away from farming also has its costs.

The cost that will be addressed in this article will be the impact of industrialization on climate change. So why does industrialization increase the carbon footprint of a country?

While there are many factors that contribute to this, two major ones would be the increase in the amount of energy and resources needed by the country to fuel its industrialization and the increased consumption of the population as they gain more money, as is going to be argued in this article.

By nature, industrialization is slated to increase the amount of carbon released by a country or region because as the amount of industry grows, so does the amount of carbon emissions, according to data from Our World in Data. For example, look at a post-1960 newly industrializing South Korea. South Korea rapidly industrialized in a span of a few decades by focusing on exporting a massive amount of goods to a rapidly expanding global market.

In order to grow by exporting these goods, Korea needed to manufacture products. To do this they needed to build factories, which released carbon dioxide, or CO2.

These factories had to produce products. These products required extracting materials from the earth. These factories needed electricity to run machines and keep the lights on. Roads, bridges, canals and other infrastructure had to be built in order to be able to transport the manufactured goods to global consumers.

Every single one of these steps required for industrialization released CO2.

In 1961 South Korea was producing 0.55 tonnes per capita of CO2 and had a per capita GDP of $1,719. By 2017, after South Korea’s industrialization, it was producing 12.08 tonnes per capita of CO2 and had a per capita GDP of $36,103.

The quality of life of the average South Korean citizen increased drastically and was almost unrecognizable compared to the subsistence farming, foreign aid-dependent South Korean of the 1950s. This massive increase in both the carbon emissions and the wealth of South Korea was almost completely due to South Korea’s industrialization and subsequent participation in global trade, according to The Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies.

Moreover, the standard of living of a population is measured in part by the number of goods readily accessible to them, which means that as the standard of living increases, so does the amount of goods available to them. As a country industrializes, more money becomes available to the general population and their standard of living usually increases.

However, with this increase in the consumption of goods comes a higher carbon footprint because increased consumption means increased manufacturing. This is why industrialized and post-industrial countries such as America have a high carbon footprint per capita compared to countries that have not yet industrialized and developed their economies. 

For example, in 2018 an average US consumer spent $61,224 while an average consumer in Congo spent $497. If a consumer has more money to spend, they are going to consume more goods. These goods have to be sourced from somewhere and whether it be internationally or domestically, it takes carbon to manufacture and transport these goods.

This increase in the number of carbon emissions does not necessarily decrease after industrialization, either. In most cases, the amount of carbon either increases at a slower rate than during industrialization or peaks and then stays relatively constant. In the rare cases that the number of carbon emissions does decrease after reaching a peak, the amount of carbon produced is still exponentially higher than the pre-industrial level.

During the period that current-day industrial or post-industrial countries industrialized from the early 19th century to the late 20th century, countries were not worried about carbon emissions, as carbon-based climate change was not discovered until 1938 and did not gain the attention of the public until 1988, according to Wired.

In today’s world, coal and oil are not sources of energy available. There is now green energy.

Green electricity today is now cheaper than fossil fuels, which means that in order to fulfill the massive electricity requirements needed to industrialize, countries are now incentivized to use renewable energy. Unfortunately, this is only one part of the equation.

Even if industrializing countries manage to keep their carbon emissions from electricity production to zero — which is unlikely because depending on region and geography, coal, oil, and natural gas can still be cheaper — electricity and heat only contributed about 30% of carbon emissions in 2016.

The other 70% of carbon emissions from different sectors such as transport, manufacturing and construction, and agriculture are all sectors that are going to grow with industrialization and do not have solutions as simple as making solar panels and wind turbines.

Moreover, there are other, much more potent greenhouse gases that will also increase with industrialization such as methane, which is 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide, or sulfur hexafluoride, which is 23,500 times as potent as carbon dioxide

However, at this critical juncture in history where more now than ever humans have to cut down on carbon emissions, it wouldn’t make sense for countries to industrialize and release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The dilemma is that if these countries do not industrialize, they will not be able to develop their economies and give their citizens a better standard of living.

It is inevitable that industrialization will come with climate consequences. Whether or not we should leave people in underdeveloped economies to fight the climate crisis needs to be taken into consideration whenever discussing how to prevent climate change.

Will we as a species make the right decisions and save ourselves from the global warming crisis that we created or will we wait until it’s too late to do anything and have the mistakes we make now be one of our last?