Low Carbon Economy, 2011, 2, 200-204
doi:10.4236/lce.2011.24024 Published Online December 2011 (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/lce)
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. LCE
Economic Growth and a Low Carbon
Economy—Does the Earth Suffer from an “Easter
Island Syndrome”?
Andreas Oberheitmann1,2,3
1Research Center for International Environmental Policy, School of Environment, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China; 2Rheinisch
Westfälisches Institut für Wirtschafts f o r s c h u n g , E s s e n , Germany; 3Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China.
Email: oberheitmann@tsinghua.edu.cn
Received October 3rd, 2011; revised November 8th, 2011; accepted November 18th, 2011.
The history of the Eastern Islands in the Pacific with an increasing over-utilization of natural resources reminds us of
the mistakes modern societies are making and the question is obvious whether the Earth is suffering from an Eastern
Islands Syndrome, in other words whether the egoism inherent in humans long-term might have fatal consequences for
our species homo sapiens. Climate research identified two importan t phenomena, which should remind us of the Easter
Islands: feedbacks and tipping points, i.e. self-accelerating phenomena of global warming and reaching irreversible
points of climate change. Only a quick worldwide return to a low carbon economy is able to stabilize global warming
on a bearable level. Both Annex-I countries and Non-Annex-I countries have to contribute to reaching this goal taking
their historical, current and future responsibilities into account. A post Kyoto regime based on cumulative per-capita
CO2-emission rights and an international emission trading could provide for incentives to achieve a low carbon econ-
omy, especially for newly industrialized countries.
Keywords: Climate Change, Feedbacks, Tipping Points, Per Capita Cumulative Emission Rights, Emission Trading
1. Introduction
When the Easter Islands were settled, is unclear. Older
sources say 300 AD - 400 AD, parallel to settling the
Hawaiis, some newer sources are putting forward the
time between 700 AD - 800 AD. Since this time, a soci-
ety with ten independent tribes developed living in dif-
ferent parts of the island, but without having clear bor-
ders. In the beginning, only the coastal regions were set-
tled. Approximately by 1100 AD, the time of the adva-
nced culture of the Easter Islands with the establishment
of monumental architecture began. Among them the be st-
known are the large stone statues (Moai), standing at the
coast and looking into th e island with their big eyes. Th is
cultural bloom, however, only lasted to the mid 17th
Century, at the latest then degeneration of the society of
th e Easter Islan ds began. But in th e centuries before, there
had been social phenomena such as the over-usage of
natural resources already occurring, which should remind
us of our own history and the effects of global climate
change [1]. Does the egoism of humans, which is driving
force of economic growth, long-term become a global
calamity—does the Earth suffer from an “Easter Island
Syndrome”? The history of the Easter Islands in the Pa-
cific shows us this “tragedy of the commons” [2] in a
Section 1 of this paper describes the history of the
Easter Islands and raises the issue whether the Earth is
suffering from an Easter Islands Syndrome. Climate re-
search identified two important phenomena, which shoul d
remind us of the Easter Islands: feedbacks and tipping
points (Section 2). Section 3 provides for lessons to be
learned from the history of the Easter Islands, i.e. build-
ing a path to a low carbon economy. An international
emissions trading system is proposed based on cumula-
tive per-capita CO2-emission rights which might provide
incentives to pursue this low carbon economy path esp e-
cially in newly industrialized countries with an emission
budget below the assumed threshold. Section 4 summa-
rizes the article.
2. History of the Easter Islands and Issues to
Be Raised
Up to the end of the 13th Century, the soil of the Easter
Economic Growth and a Low Carbon Economy—Does the Earth Suffer from an “Easter Island Syndrome”? 201
Islands was used in a sustainable way, after then a radical
deforestation began with increasing soil erosion. The
growth of population and increasing settling in the inte-
rior island without access to the sea as an important
source of food and as a consequence with a growing ag-
ricultural production were seen as the important factors
for the deforestation.
This phenomenon, however, occurs world-wide. At the
beginning of the industrial revolution, about 1750, world
population was be tween 630 and 960 million [3 ]. In 2009,
it was already 6.8 bn [4]. By 2050, world population is
expected to reach 9 bn. The transformation of the land
surface is probably the first considerable (although re-
gional) influence, which humans had on the global cli-
mate. 1750 only about 8 - 9 Mill·km2 or 6% - 7% of the
world land surface were agriculturally used, especially in
Europe, India and China. In the year 1990, it already was
46 - 51 Mill·km2 or 35% - 39% of the land surface of the
Earth. About 11 Mill·km2 forest were cut. Today, defor-
estation is responsible for about a fifth of growth of net
global anthropogenous CO2-emissions [5].
After 1425 AD, intensive agriculture with innovative
measures (such as wall protected cultivated areas, stone
mulch) was utilized on the Easter Islands: on the one
hand because of the rising ground erosion, on the other
hand due to the population growth as way out this Mal-
thusian trap [6]. The intensive agriculture maintained
until the first half of the 17th Century, when the tribal
society collapsed.
The intensification of the agriculture with increasing
capital-intensive means of production such as fertilizers,
pesticides and machines, yielding an accordingly grow-
ing agricultural output per used land is also to be ob-
served world-w id e. Sin ce the ear ly 18 th Cen tur y, so w ing,
reaping and threshing machines were invented and used
first in England, which permitted to manage substantially
larger agricultural fields. Justu s Liebig’s invention of the
chemical fertilizer in 1840 and the increasing employ-
ment of these fertilizers on today world-wide 45 mill tons
per year lead to a substantial increase of agricu ltural pro-
ductivity [7]. Around 1900, one farmer could produce
food for 4 other persons, 1950 one farmer nourished 10
persons, in 2004 alr eady 143. Fossil energy consumption
and the utilization of fertilizers on nitrogen basis and the
related CO2- and N2O-Emissionen contribute to climate
change. The contribution of the agriculture makes about
12.5 billion tons of CO2-equivalents per year or 28% of
the approximately 45 billion tons of CO2-equivalents
world-wide. With 2.1 billion tons of CO2-equivalents, the
excessive use of fertilizers has thereby a considerable
portion [5].
From archeo-biological investigations of waste of the
settlements of the Easter Islands it is recognizable that
the number and variety of sea-birds as source of food
rapidly decreased after 1650 AD. On the basis of fossil
discoveries back to 520 million years ago, also on a
global scale, there is a long-term negative relation be-
tween global mean temperature and biodiversity. In times
of higher temperatures the variety of types was smaller
both in the sea and at the country then in times of lower
temperatures. However, it is still unclear wheth er this is a
causal relation.
Starting from the mid 17th Century, the monumental
construction on the Easter Islands stopped. Starting from
the end of the 17th, at the latest starting in the first half
the 18th Century, the cult platforms were systematically
destroyed by the people themselves and statues were
thrown over. Finally, it came to a complete decline of the
traditional cultu re.
Disputed is still, where the roots of this cultural de-
cline are to be searched. Today, the majority of the re-
searchers assume the problems were caused by the Is-
landers themselves. Some speaks for the fact that the
substantial predatory exploitation of the inhabitants of
their own natural resources on the island led to the dis-
turbance of the ecological equilibrium and at the end to
the decline of the society [1]. The question is what the
history of the Easter Islands can teach us? Is the egoism
of humans and their desire for more and more on a
long-term basis fatal? Is the Earth on the edge of similar
radical ecological changes due to the unrestrained con-
sumption of fossil sources of energy and other resources?
3. Climate Change Phenomena and the
Easter Island Syndome: Feedbacks
and Tipping Points
The egoism and the desire for more is inherent in humans.
In particular, if it has still little. One can feel that clearly
here in China. The development of the economy at the
expense of nature is at the agenda, all the more, the
smaller the individual contribution for the negative total
effect is. But on the other side, the hypothesis of the En-
vironmental Kuznets Curve [8,9] may apply, that starting
from a certain per capita income the utilization of the
environment decreases again. The question is, whether
the climate can bear per-capita greenhouse gas emissions
converging to a certain level worldwide. It is very likely,
that the answer is “no”. Nowadays, “the limits to growth ”
actually have to be defined from an ecological view
rather than as from the perspective of resource availabil-
Climate research identified two important phenomena,
which should remind us of the Easter Islands: feedbacks
and tipping points [5].
Some effects of the global warming produ ce add itional
global warming, they work as feedbacks to the global
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. LCE
Economic Growth and a Low Carbon Economy—Does the Earth Suffer from an “Easter Island Syndrome”?
climatic system. Some feedbacks are negative, i.e. warming
effect induce cooling effects. Others are positive, so that
global warming is accelerated. e.g., for the 1960’s, the
mean temperature in Siberia increased by around 3˚C,
which leads to a deicing of the perma-frost soils since
approximately ten years. Very large quantities of meth-
ane, which are bound below the perma-frosted ground as
gas hydrates, now escapes into the atmosphere. Since
methane is a greenhouse gas 21-times stronger than car-
bon dioxide, global warming is accelerated and even
more perma-frost thaws off. On a long-term basis, some-
thing similar is true for a warming up of the oceans and
the danger of a slow, uncontrollable and over centuries
continuing methane release due to heated up deeper ocean
layers. Even more important, however, is the short-term
decrease of the sea ice, which covers up to 15 percent of
the world’s oceans. The oceans have a smaller reflecting
ability (albedo) of sunlight than the ice surfaces, because
they ar e darker. The oceans thu s absorb a major ity of the
arriving sunlight, while the sea ice reflects up to 90% of
the irradiated solar power in the universe. If the surface
of the sea ice decreases, more solar power will be ab-
sorbed and the Earth warms up even more strongly.
Among other things, due to the decrease of the sea ice
and snow, the annual average temperature of the Arctic
increased nearly twice as fast as in the remaining world.
According to different projections, the Arctic will warm
up around further 4˚C to 7˚C in the next 100 years [5].
If climate change continues, so-called tipping-points can
be reached, at which the climate abruptly and irreversibly
reacts. When these points will exactly be reached, is still
uncertain. The tipping point for an ice-free Arctic in the
summer, however, could already be very close. Global
warming in connection with cutting rain forest could also
lead to a tipping point, where the ecological system rain
forest drains and completely breaks down finally. This
would have substantial effects for the global climate,
since less and less carbon dioxide can be absorbed and
escapes into the atmosphere. Other tipping points exist
approximately with the acidification of the oceans or to
begin of the monsoon in India [10].
4. Lessons to Be Learned from the History of
the Easter Islands: Building a Path to a
Low Carbon Economy
The question, which arises last, is: what can we learn
from the history of the Easter Islands? The most impor-
tant device would be that we may not make the same
mistakes on a global scale, which the inhabitants of the
Easter Islands had made before us. Otherwise, possibly
history repeats itself in a fatal way. Hardin described this
tragedy by a pasture shared by local herders [2], called a
commons. The herders are assumed to wish t o max imize
their yield, and so will increase their herd size whenever
possible. The utility of each additional animal has two
components, a positive and a negative. Tragically, the
division of these costs and benefits is unequal: the indi-
vidual herder gains all of the advantage, but the disad-
vantage of the incremental degradation of the pasture is
shared among all herders using the pasture. Consequently,
for an individual herder the rational cour se of action is to
continue to add additional animals to his herd. However,
since all herders reach the same rational conclusion,
overgrazing with immediate losses occurs, and degrada-
tion of the pasture may be its long-term fate.
As for the utili zation of fossil fu els and related costs of
climate change it is quite similar. The single economic
entity gets the full utility from using fossil fuels, e.g. by
driving a new fossil fuelled car, but the costs of climate
change are shared globally. This effect is the stronger the
smaller the individual contribution to climate change and
the larger the perceived absorption capacity of the at-
mosphere and thus the smaller the probability and costs
of climate change are perceived by the economic entity.
In fact, the costs of climate change are increasing, maybe
even per capita with a growing world population, as
greenhouse gases are continuously piling up in the at-
mosphere. But the marginal climate change costs still do
not outweigh the marginal utility from contributing to
climate change. This may be only the case, if one or
more of the tipping points mentioned above are reached
and climate change costs increase tremendously, literally
from one year to the other. But th en, it may be too late.
The problem with the long-lasting and cumulating
greenhouse gases is that we (more or less) only can make
climate change not worse. So, what to do? Technically, it
is relatively clear. The establishment of a low carbon
economy almost entirely using renewable energies should
be the goal of all societies. This would enable the world
to achieve an almost CO2-neutral economy for the future.
Other greenhouse gases such as methane, laughing gas or
fluorocarbon connections, however, are there by not yet
from the atmosphere. They have to be abandoned as well,
but a large step would be done achieving it with CO2.
The opportunity to rewind histor y is only with “n egativ e”
emissions, i.e. a carbon capture and storage (CCS) of
emissions from bio-fuels. The biomass “filled into the
tank” represents carbon taken out of the atmosphere. If
there are no emissions to the atmosphere during combus-
tion as they are captured and stored, the net-emissions
are negative. However, this approach is still very cost-
Under the current (a) energy price and (b) climate cost
conditions, the “Easter Island Synd rome” is still virulent.
The political task is to internalize the external effects of
climate change into the energy price calculus of the eco-
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. LCE
Economic Growth and a Low Carbon Economy—Does the Earth Suffer from an “Easter Island Syndrome”? 203
nomic entities and to make the expected climate costs
more transparent or visible on an individual level. The
instruments to do that on the national level are well-
known (taxes, subsidies, Coase-solutions etc.) or the
government simply imposes regulatory command and
control measures. The expected climate costs can be
made more transparent through the publication of re-
search results, e.g. in the IPCC framework. However, the
problem still is that the government can only change the
framework conditions, but not the people.
Even, if that worked on a national scale, there is the
international dimension of the problem. As for climate
change mitigation, it is extremely important to have a
global approach, since under the current energy price
conditions, the incentives are too large to deviate from a
CO2-neutral path regionally and to keep on using coal,
oil or gas to maintain or develop a competitive advantage
over low-carbon economies. This is the expression of the
“Easter Island Syndrome” on the international level.
Here, the international climate negotiations have to
achieve a global consensus on binding greenhouse gas
emission reduction targets in the post-Kyoto phase. A
2˚C global temperature increase above pre-industrial
levels is internationally accepted as having only minor
implications for the economies and the environment. In
2007, the Environment Council of the European Union
has confirmed this as the EU’s indicativ e target [11]. For
achieving the 2˚C target with a probability of more than
60%, greenhouse gas concen trations n eed to be stab ilized
at 450 - 400 ppm CO2-equivalent by 2100, if the 90%
uncertainty range for climate sensitivity is believ ed to be
1.5˚C to 4.5˚C [12].
On the average of 2008-2012, the Kyoto Protocol is
pledging a 5.2% reduction of greenhouse gases against
1990, but much more far reaching obligations have to be
taken. To achieve the 2˚C target, by 2050, worldwide
CO2-emissions have to be reduced by about 50%, by the
Annex-I countries on the average b y 80%.
One question among many is, how to distribute the
CO2-emission targets among the single countries. Cur-
rently, different post-Kyoto approaches are discussed,
including “per capita convergence in emission endow-
ments”, “soft landing in emission growth”, “global pref-
erence score approach”, “historical contribution to cli-
mate change or ‘Brazilian proposal’”, “ability to pay”, or
the “multi-stage approach”. The main weakness of all
these approaches is that at the same time
They do not take into the fact into consideration, that
on the one side, the developed countries are responsible
for the current CO2-concentration in the atmosphere, on
the other side developing countries such as China and
India are to a large extent responsible for the current ad-
ditional CO2-emissions which now start to accumulate in
the atmosphere (which is partly done in the “Brazilian
proposal”), and do not provide for a fair distribution of
emission rights like in “per capita convergence in emis-
sion endowments”.
As CO2-concentration is cumu lated emission over time,
a post Kyoto regime should take this as a basis.
A post-Kyoto approach based on cumulated per capita
CO2-emission rights would take the above mentioned
weaknesses into account [13]. Here, the cumulated CO2-
emissions (CO2,cum) of country m are:
2,,,2,, ,2,, ,2,, ,
mcumcaptcoalt moil tmgastm
2,, ,2,, ,2,, ,
bunker t mflagas t mcement t m
The cumulated CO2-emissions per capita of country m
2, ,
2, ,,,20
mcumcapt m
mt (2)
In order to make sure that a growing population does
not lead to an increase of CO2-emission rights, the allo-
cated cumulated per capita CO2-emissions from 1750 are
based on the 2007 world population. A growing popula-
tion over time, should not lead to an increase of CO2-emis-
sions, but to an incentive to increase energy efficiency
(or possibly to adopt a pro-activ e population growth pol-
icy, but this has to be considered in ethical terms).
The target would be the stabilization of global warm-
ing to 2 degree Celsius or 400 - 450 ppm CO2-concentra-
tion in the atmosphere. Calculating the cumulative CO2-
emissions as a proxy for the CO2-concentration in the
atmosphere, a concentration of 400 ppm CO2 represents
about 1600 bn. t cumulated CO2-emissions (CO2,cum).
Taking the 2007 world population (6552 Mill) as the
constant reference over time, every human on Earth
would have emission rights of 246 t CO2,cumcap for the
400 ppm concentration or 354 t CO2,cumcap for the 450
ppm concentration.
The Annex-I countries, on the average had to reduce
their cumulated CO2-emissions per capita to their 1950
level instead of facing a further increase. In 2008, that
would have meant to reduce per-capita cumulated emis-
sions from 657 t CO2,cumcap by 411 t CO2,cumcap to 246 t
CO2,cumcap. China would e.g. reach the 400 ppm threshold
by between 2026 (BAU), by 2025 (HIGH) and by 2033
(LOW) depending on the GDP-growth assumption in the
model [13]. e.g ., India, Indon esia, African an d other Low
Income Countries would not reach this threshold even by
2050 and could sell emission rights to the international
market and finance the development of a low carbon
The new distribution system itself is nor able to solve
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. LCE
Economic Growth and a Low Carbon Economy—Does the Earth Suffer from an “Easter Island Syndrome”?
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. LCE
the problem of climate change mitigation itself or the
“Eastern Island Syndrome”, but it may help to reduce
frictions in international climate protection cooperation.
The success of such a system still heavily depends on the
quality of monitoring, reporting and verification of en-
ergy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions world-
wide and finally that the emission caps are kept on a
global scale based on a responsibility that every human
being feels for the whole. For that, however, the human
nature has to change. The question is: can we change
based on enlightened self-interest or do we have to learn
it in a hard way?
5. Summary
The history of the Eastern Islands in the Pacific with an
increasing over-utilization of natural resources reminds
us of the mistakes modern societies are making and the
question is obvious whether the egoism inherent in hu-
mans long-term might have fatal consequences for our
species homo sapiens as it was for the population of the
Easter Islands.
Climate research identified two important phenomena,
which should remind us of the Easter Islands: feedbacks
and tipping points, i.e. self-accelerating phenomena of
global warming and reaching irreversible points of cli-
mate change. Only a quick worldwide return to a low
carbon economy is able to stabilize global warming on a
bearable level. Both, Annex-I countries and Non-An-
nex-I countries have to contribute to reaching this goal
taking their historical, current and future responsibilities
into account.
A post Kyoto regime based on cumulative per-capita
CO2-emission rights and a international emission trading
could provide for incentives to achieve a low carbon
economy, especially for newly industrialized countries.
This could be a step towards tackling climate change
long term, the issue of the other greenhouse gases, how-
ever, also have to be addressed in the future.
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