New Report: Globalization Partly to Blame for Climate Change

Presently, disagreements between developed and developing countries on responsibilities and cost sharing are major stumbling blocks in discussions about an international agreement on climate change.

The study, titled “Economic Globalisation: Origins and Consequences,” notes that for decades, developed countries—the pioneers of global industrialization—were the world’s biggest polluters, responsible for the lion’s share of menacing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Today, the United States is responsible for around 20 percent of global GHG emissions.

“But the very rapid development of emerging countries over the past several years has also led them to become major emitters of GHG,” says the study, which is part of a series of “OECD Insights.” It is authored by Jean-Yves Huwart and Loïc Verdier.

They point out that these countries developed largely thanks to globalization, which fostered the industrialization of the Asian giants—often at the expense of the environment. To quench its thirst for energy, China, for example, opens one new coal-fired power plant every week. While coal is the cheapest and most abundant fossil fuel, it is also the most polluting.

“Add to that China’s mushrooming transport fleet and galloping urbanization and it became the world’s largest emitter of CO2, ahead of the United States, in 2007. Agreed, China has also embarked on drastic renewable energy programs in recent years. But each day, emerging countries buy a little more into the logic of mass consumption linked to globalization. This means that they will largely be responsible for rising GHG emissions in the years to come,” the study explains.

As is known, climate change is one of the main environmental problems, particularly worrying because it is impossible to predict exactly how it’s going to develop and what the consequences will be. Its causes, however, are known: Climate change stems mostly from the greenhouse effect—meaning the excessive retention of solar energy in the atmosphere due to an accumulation of certain gases, particularly CO2.

Emissions from Transport

The main sources of CO2 emissions are industrial production, transportation and, more indirectly, deforestation. These three human activities exist independently of globalization, but their considerable development during the twentieth century, and in particular in recent decades, is partly linked to accelerated globalization, Huwart and Verdier say.

They have no doubt that globalization promotes CO2 emissions from transport. As critical drivers of globalization, transport systems have multiplied alongside international trade. Emissions from road transport—mainly cars and trucks—are of course very high, but more so within national borders, the authors explain.

“But the opening of some regional areas—such as the suppression of border controls among European Union [E.U.] countries—has given a strong boost to road freight transport. Despite some encouraging recent alternatives such as piggybacking—transporting trucks by train for part of the journey—transnational road transport is an important source of CO2 emissions,” the study adds.

But the major mode of transport that has characterized globalization in the past decades is the airplane, the authors say. Between 1990 and 2004, GHG emissions from aviation increased 86 percent. Aviation is today responsible for 4 to 9 percent of total GHG emissions released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, sea transport swallows 2 to 4 percent of all the fossil fuels consumed by the planet every year. Some 70 percent of international transport of goods towards the E.U. and 95 percent of trade towards the U.S. is by sea, and improved energy technologies are not enough to absorb the environmental impact of the 3 percent annual increase in shipping.

“That said, much of the environmental harm from transport is due to the increase in domestic traffic. In the case of aviation, between 2005 and 2007 Indian airline companies ordered a whopping 500 new airplanes from aircraft constructors Airbus and Boeing to cover new domestic travel needs. In other words, increased traffic on the highways of international trade, driven by the globalization dynamic, isn’t solely responsible for increases in transport-related CO2 emissions,” the authors explain.

“Carbon Kilometers”

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Environment Directorate’s Brendan Gillespie, who heads the Environmental Performances and Information division, adds that while transport’s share in total CO2 emissions has increased in recent years, it remains weak in absolute terms.

“There is much talk of ‘carbon kilometers’ to assess international trade’s ecological footprint. Some believe that in order to limit CO2 emissions, Europeans should choose local wines over Chilean wines and stop buying Kenyan flowers. But these approaches are often short-sighted because they do not take the global picture into account. For example, cultivating flowers in Kenya consumes less total fossil energy than cultivating them in northern Europe, transport included,” says Gillespie.

He is of the view that technological innovation can play a major role in combating climate change. As it is, policies that promote green technologies are multiplying. “If the existing clean technologies were more widely available, we would already be seeing drastically reduced CO2 emissions. A classic example: If all television sets and computers had a switch that automatically turned off the power supply, the energy savings would be huge,” notes Gillespie.

Another example, he says—incandescent light bulbs, which consume more energy and have a shorter lifespan than energy-saving bulbs—are now banned in Australia.

“As for water resources, we are seeing huge waste in many developing countries, which use—often not very efficiently—70 percent of their available water for agriculture. The problem stems in part from the very low cost of water to users. If these farmers used proven drip techniques more extensively, like in Australia and Israel, they would save millions of liters. Of course, this would require investments, but given the long-term real costs of current consumption modes, the return on investment would be significant,” says Gillespie.

He points out that at the OECD, they have long insisted on the “polluter-payer” and “user-payer” principles. Environmental policies should make product costs reflect environmental costs. At the same time, he insists, consumers should pay for some environmental services, such as access to drinking water. After all, transporting water from a reservoir to a kitchen costs a lot of money.

Gillespie admits that the required investments can be so costly that they will only be recouped after 30 or 40 years. “So it’s probably preferable to consider water infrastructures as ‘public goods’ and mobilize public funds to finance them. The same goes for healthcare. Pollution causes many respiratory illness in China. The World Bank estimated that if the country could improve the situation on this front it could gain 3 to 5 percent in GDP, thanks to savings in its healthcare system. Likewise, if we continue to raze the forests and sell off their resources at low cost, we won’t have any forest reserves left very soon.”

Sustainable management

He warns against mortgaging future gains, and stresses that sustainable management, on the other hand, will provide long-term revenues.

In a conversation integrated into the study, Gillespie says: “The difficulty stems from a lack of control over the criminal organizations that devastate nature reserves. International reports probably do not stress enough the illegal trade in plants and animals. The market is gigantic, and the damages huge. Africa, Indonesia and Russia, among others, suffer greatly from this kind of trafficking and lack the means to control it and stamp it out.

“A few years ago, some streets of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast were covered in toxic residue from a Dutch ship claiming to carry municipal waste. The risks that polluters run are low. Barring global policies and an international police force with appropriate means of enforcement, they will always win. There has been some progress, for example the collaboration between customs authorities and Interpol, but much remains to be done.

“At the international level, investment financing is even more complicated. Historically, developed countries were the most responsible for GHG emissions. But in the future, developing countries will need to reduce their GHG emissions, with important implications for their development. Disagreements between developed and developing countries on responsibilities and cost sharing are major stumbling blocks in discussions about an international agreement on climate change.”

Asked as to who has the power to turn today’s planetary ecological degradation around, Gillespie says: “First, the governments, which must take appropriate measures reflecting the environmental cost of the activities of public administrations, companies and citizens. But all the stakeholders must play a role: manufacturers must adopt production methods that are more respectful of the environment and consumers must change their habits, for example by purchasing ‘greener’ products and services.

“Things are more complex than it seems. For example, encouraging companies or authorities to sell coffee branded ‘fair trade’ may be good for the environment, but it will not resolve all the environmental problems linked to coffee production. To have a truly positive impact, a palette of different measures will need to be implemented simultaneously.”

This article originally appeared at www.street-papers.org / IDN-InDepth. Reprinted with permission.

–Jaya Ramachandran

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