The speed at which globalisation has spread has lead to unprecedented impacts on the environment. There are two schools of thought however; one group believes that through the spread of economic success, knowledge and technology, globalisation will improve the condition of the environment. However, the opposite perspective states that the success of globalisation inherently depends on environment degradation.
Optimists believe that globalisation leads to economic growth and higher per capita incomes, which creates wealth and political will, two factors necessary to combat environmental damage. They often point to the environmental Kuznets curve, which states that along the path of economic growth, there is a tendency for temporarily higher pollution levels as a result of the early stages of industrial development. However, once a certain level of per capita income is reached, environmental damage decreases.
Unfortunately, this view is overly simplistic in that it ignores two powerful reasons why the net environmental impact is still higher as income increases. Firstly, globalisation facilitates an increase in consumption that occurs as a wider selection of goods become available at a lower price. Industrial countries, with 15% of the world’s population, account for 76% of global consumption expenditure. This brings us to the second argument, which is that as countries develop, people tend to shift the production, and hence the pollution, onto less developed nations. This creates a gap between consumption and production, which distances the consumer both physically and ethically from the negative implications of consumption, further encouraging more consumption. In other words, if I don’t see the net effect of my purchases here in Australia, because the factory underpaying the workers and producing pollution is in China, I can go out on a spending spree guilt free.
This gap is further highlighted when one considers the inequity in carbon produced between developed and developing nations. Current data from the World Bank suggests that the bulk of CO2 emissions produced in 2002 overwhelmingly came from countries with a high-income average. This debunks the underlying assumption of the environmental Kuznets curve, because clearly, as per capital income increases, pollution also goes up and up.
If globalisation was supposed to result in improved technology, which facilitates more efficient and pollution-free production, then it is clear that on balance, this has not occurred either. The Jevons paradox states that increased efficiency through technological progress leads to increased consumption, as human behaviour dictates that an increased demand for a resource occurs as the cost is lowered. The classic example used to illustrate this phenomenon is that in creating more fuel-efficient cars, you have billions of fuel-efficient cars purchased, rather than millions of inefficient cars. So an increase in technology and efficiency through globalisation has the effect of increasing consumption and hence environmental degradation.
Critics also point to the fact that the focus of globalisation is on profit and economic success, through trade liberalisation, and the environment necessarily becomes a secondary consideration. As Roe and Eaton put it, “WTO rules do not consider the value of such elements as clean air and fresh water”. Globalisation inherently causes environmental damage through the increase in transport, goods, infrastructure and energy consumption that occurs out of necessity as world markets are linked together. As markets move from local to global, the physical space between the consumer and producer increases. This not only results in higher transport costs to the environment, but also infrastructure to support the transfer of these goods.
In attempting to combat globalisation’s effect on environmental degradation, a major barrier is the increasing number of actors in the global political economy, and their decreasing levels of accountability. At the very heart of this problem lies the shift in power that has occurred from states to markets, and the increasingly transnational forms of governance that have occurred. Simply put, the lack of an intergovernmental body overseeing this area means that growth is unregulated and unsustainable.
Globalisation and the underlying principles of neoliberalism suggest that the natural equilibrium of the free market leads to a more efficient and productive society. While this in itself is questionable, it leaves issues like the environment in the “too hard” category, because protecting our natural resources is not considered as something of major value. This issue brings up many questions surrounding global governance, and where responsibilities lie when corporations are left unregulated in the pursuit of profit. For example, what challenges would an international organisation charged with regulating environmental degradation face? Where does the responsibility for solving environmental problems lie – with the state, market or civil society? Is there hope towards true international regulation, or will it be stymied by the individual agendas of each country?
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