Investigating Impacts of Economic Growth on the Environment Using Remote Sensing Tools: A Case Study of Gross Domestic Product and Net Primary Production in China from 2001 to 2007
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Pursuing sustainable co-development of economy and environment has been established as a basic national policy by the present Chinese government. However, studies regarding actual outcomes of the co-development policy at the whole Chinese scale are still limited. Detecting China’s economic growth and changes of environmental quality will not only contribute to evaluation of outcomes of the co-development policy but more importantly is an opportunity to examine the suitability of the IPAT model and improve our understanding of human-environment interactions. The core of the IPAT theory is an equation where I=P×A×T that models human impact on the environment as a function of changes to population (P), affluence (A), and technology (T). The IPAT theory emphasizes that economic growth will inevitably produce negative impacts on the environment. Thus, if China’s environmental quality declined while economic growth occurred, then the IPAT theory will be substantiated. Otherwise, the suitability of the IPAT theory will be called into question and its tenets must be reconsidered.
In this dissertation research I selected gross domestic product (GDP) and net primary production (NPP) as indicators to evaluate production of social and ecological systems respectively. The main study objectives are (1) to develop a methodology to facilitate integration of the two indicators derived from demographic data sources and satellite imagery at different geographic scales, (2) to jointly explore changing patterns of China’s economic and ecological production (i.e., spatially and temporally coincident patterns of change in GDP and NPP) across different spatial scales, (3) to analyze whether economic growth has produced negative impacts on ecosystem production and whether the impacts correlate to the economic growth, and finally (4) to discuss whether the IPAT theory is suitable for explaining the joint changes of GDP and NPP in China or if it is in need of modification. To fulfill the study objectives, nighttime light images and LandScan gridded population data were used to disaggregate demographic GDP data reported at the province level to the pixel level. The disaggregated GDP data were integrated with MODIS annual NPP data to map joint changes of GDP and NPP from 2001 to 2007. Economic development and environmental change can lead to land cover change, and the land cover change can, in turn, determine the changes of NPP. Thus, a change detection matrix with basic land cover elements was produced from MODIS land cover type products to augment the analyses of changing patterns of GDP and NPP in China. To safely discern that the changes of NPP are mainly affected by anthropogenic factors and not natural forces, the extents of undeveloped, established developed (existing before 2001), and newly developed (emerging after 2001) areas were delimited from the nighttime light images.
Results show that most Chinese developed areas experienced coupled increases in GDP and NPP between 2001 and 2007 across different geographic scales, but no significant correlations exist between the total changes (or percentage changes) in GDP and NPP at the province, the city, or the pixel level. Despite large increases in GDP, the decreases in vegetated land expected according to IPAT theory did not occur in developed areas. Instead, barren land markedly decreased and built-up land slightly decreased in extent. These changing patterns suggest that China’s economic growth produced some positive impacts on its ecosystem production as measured using NPP. In light of these findings a reexamination of the IPAT theory is necessary. I propose a revision to the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) concept to fully illustrate the relationship between economic growth and ecosystem production as an indicator of environmental quality. According to the EKC, at relatively low levels of economic output, economic growth produces negative impacts on environmental quality. The negative impacts tend to reach a maximum at high levels of economic output and then decline at sustained levels of high economic output. My findings indicate that at sustained levels of high economic output some negative impacts may be reduced, but that some positive impacts may simultaneously emerge.