In Box

By the People, for the Planet

Move over geo-green, renewable energy, and biofuels. There’s a new environmental buzzword: democracy. According to research by Quan Li at Pennsylvania State University and Rafael Reuveny at Indiana University, countries with democratic governments are more environmentally friendly than their autocratic peers. Deforestation can drop by as much as 271 percent and some emissions by 14 ...

Move over geo-green, renewable energy, and biofuels. There’s a new environmental buzzword: democracy. According to research by Quan Li at Pennsylvania State University and Rafael Reuveny at Indiana University, countries with democratic governments are more environmentally friendly than their autocratic peers. Deforestation can drop by as much as 271 percent and some emissions by 14 percent as countries move up the freedom scale. Consider the environmental consequences of a democratic China. The researchers expect a freer China would reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 156 million metric tons every year — or just less than Malaysia’s annual output.

Because democracies allow information to flow more freely, public opinion can make environmental issues a greater political priority. Autocratic leaders, on the other hand, are more likely to restrict debate and squander state resources. "At the end of the day, it’s the government that regulates the environment," explains Reuveny.

But toppling dictators may not be enough to save the Earth just yet. The authors also found a downside to the democratic tide. During a country’s transition to democracy, environmental degradation actually becomes more severe, thanks to a fixation on economic development at the expense of natural resources. Once democratic institutions have taken hold, the damage begins to decline. But Reuveny warns that "this short run could be relatively long. We know the processes of development are not formed today or tomorrow. They take decades." Still, perhaps promoting democracy is more than just hot air after all.

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