Nature, Human Capital & Wealth


GDP per person, 2014, $’000, log scale                                                          *High-emissions scenario

The Economist, which we have been sourcing from all along, in an earlier era sometimes seemed dogmatic on the topic of markets solving all problems, now frequently could be described as considering all the angles:

The world’s wealth is looking increasingly unnatural

As natural wealth is used up, economies will rely more on human capital

Nature’s bounty is not easy to count, partly because she was kind enough not to bill us for it. Some economists, however, have attempted to put a dollar figure on the value of the world’s land, forests, fisheries, minerals and fossil fuels—or what is left of them. Their work has fed into the Inclusive Wealth project, initiated by the United Nations, directed by Managi Shunsuke of Kyushu University and advised by Sir Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge. They estimate the world’s natural capital amounted to over $91trn in 2014, or over $13,000 per person. (The estimates use 2005 exchange rates and prices.) New Zealand has more natural capital per person ($380,000) than oil-rich Kuwait ($362,000) or Saudi Arabia ($180,000). Gabon has more than anywhere else.

Many researchers now think of natural resources as a “curse” that erodes competitiveness and breeds corruption—economies which are heavily dependent on exporting raw materials are often dominated by small, rapacious elites. For example, Congo, which relies on mining, has about 25% more natural capital per person than the global average, but remains desperately poor. Conversely, countries like Singapore enjoy a high gdp per person despite an utter lack of God-given resources. About two-thirds of Singapore’s wealth consists instead of traditional capital: infrastructure, buildings, plant and equipment. The rest is the “human capital” reflected in its people and their skills.

On average, however, countries with more natural capital also tend to have a higher gdp per person. So is it a curse or a blessing? Some economists argue that natural bounty raises the level of gdp but slows its growth rate: it provides an additional, steady stream of income that grows less quickly than the rest of the economy.

One reason may be that resources become harder to extract as they are depleted. According to the Inclusive Wealth Report, 47% of the world’s natural capital comprises fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) and minerals (copper, gold, iron and so on) that took an eternity to form and will not be replaced. From 1990 to 2014, the stock of natural capital per person fell in 128 out of the 140 countries in the report.

Will that trend continue? Together with Yogi Sugiawan, formerly of Kyushu University, and Robi Kurniawan of Tohoku University, Mr Managi has calculated the future trajectory of natural capital under a variety of scenarios. In a future of continued high energy demand, carbon emissions can be expected to grow by 7% in high-income countries and by 44% in the rest of the world over the next two decades…

Read the whole story here.

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