Xenophobia Upside: Ethnic and Religious Diversity Correlated to Less Environmental Action

Science 2.0, December 20, 2012

When is diversity a bad thing?  When it comes to environmental action, according to a new paper from the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Scandinavian countries, low in ethnic and religious diversity, take more collective action than more diverse nations, like the UK, China and the United States. But the UEA paper frames diversity using the more negative term ‘fragmentation’.

Americans may love separation of church and state and the mix of multiple religions in the USA but Dr. Elissaios Papyrakis, a senior lecturer in UEA’s School of International Development and a senior researcher at Vrije Universiteit in Holland, found that religious diversity has an even greater detrimental impact on environmental performance than ethnic diversity.

Papyrakis gathered data on ethnicity, religion, industry, income and population density, and then more subjective measures like conflict and control of corruption, for 127 developed and developing countries and then matched them to environmental performance. {snip}

The data analyzed was for the period between 1960 and 2006, the most recent available to him. Environmental performance was measured by attributing monetary damage—as a share of GDP—attributed to a country’s carbon dioxide emissions and the dependence of energy consumption on ‘clean’, or renewable, sources such as hydropower, geothermal, nuclear and solar power.  Papyrakis also took into account the country’s adjusted net savings, a measure of sustainable development that looks at the true rate of saving in an economy after taking into account investments in human capital, depletion of natural resources and damages caused by pollution.

Although numerous factors influence environmental performance simultaneously, ethnic and religious diversity alone can explain a substantial part of the differences observed in environmental performance across countries. For example, an ethnically fragmented country such as Tanzania invests 11 per cent less for the future (adjusted net savings) compared to other Sub-Saharan African countries, such as Madagascar, that are not diverse.

Papyrakis believes that “social fragmentation has a negative effect on environmental performance. Countries that are either ethnically or religiously diverse tend to under-invest in environmental protection, even when one controls for differences in income and industrial activity, for example.

“This might be because of differences in preferences across the various, and often geographically concentrated, ethnic or religious groups about which environmental measures should be introduced and when and where. For example, public spending for waste treatment facilities or reforestation can become particularly contentious issues when different ethnic or religious groups do no benefit equally. Even when preferences over what should be done do not differ much, differences in language and culture may hamper communication and collective action. If these differences cannot be bridged, investment will not be made and positive action will not be taken.”

Some of the worst environmental performers, given their level of economic development and ethnic and religious diversity, are China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and the United Arab Emirates. The more ethnically diverse United States and UK also scored lower in terms of adjusted net savings (US 2.92 per cent of GDP, UK 13.88 per cent (2005 figures) and higher in terms of damage attributed to CO2 emissions (US 0.344 per cent of GDP, UK 0.178 per cent (2005 figures) compared to less diverse Scandinavian economies such as Denmark (adjusted net savings 13.88 per cent, CO2 damage 0.13 per cent (2005 figures).

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Paper: ‘Environmental Performance in Socially Fragmented Countries’, Environmental and Resource Economics.

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