Environment: Rich countries export their social and environmental problems

Oct 23, 2022
A lake in the shape of human footprints in the middle of a lush forest as a metaphor for the impact of human activity

Self-righteous rich countries export their problems to poor countries. Animal population sizes a third of what they were. Is Direct Air Capture a promising technology?

Rich country imports cause poor country problems

The world’s wealthy nations like to boast about the improvements they have made over recent decades to their living and working conditions and environmental protection. In some cases, this has included levelling off and even reducing their greenhouse gas emissions while continuing to grow their GDP. This so-called ‘decoupling of economic growth from emissions’ is often lauded as the holy grail of environmental sustainability. However, all the examples I’ve seen look more like minor changes to the coupler linking the GDP engine to the emissions carriage rather than any ‘decoupling’.

More significantly, while rich nations may have cleaned up some of the dirty and unsavoury activities within their own borders, this has often been achieved by exporting their social and environmental problems to the developing world, to nations that often have much less strict regulations and monitoring and are desperate for jobs, industrial development and economic growth. The export of social and environmental problems through trade (one form of ‘negative international spillover’) is well illustrated by data in the 2022 Sustainable Development Report.

The chart below shows cumulative imported CO2 emissions (CO2 emissions generated abroad to satisfy consumption within the country) per person per year for four country income groups (HIC=High Income Countries; UMIC=Upper Middle Income Countries; LMIC=Lower Middle Income Countries; LIC=Lower Income Countries) for 2010-2018. Three features stand out:

  • There has been an 8-fold growth in imported emissions globally during this very short period;
  • Most of the growth (from about 3 to about 20 tonnes per person per year) has occurred in High Income Countries;
  • High Income Countries are responsible for more than 80% of the cumulative imported CO2 emissions during this period – i.e. the grand total of every country’s imported emissions.

The responsibility for imported emissions is further underlined by the next figure which clearly demonstrates the much worse performance of the European Union (EU) and OECD countries than other nations.

The report highlights other problems that are exported by High Income Countries, for instance:

  • 40% of the EU’s carbon footprint relates to its consumption of goods and services produced in other countries;
  • 16% of the world’s tropical deforestation is caused by the EU’s consumption of goods and services;
  • the EU’s import of textiles is associated with 375 fatal and 21,000 non-fatal accidents at work;
  • and the EU’s food demands cause 16% of the very health damaging particulate matter emissions into the atmosphere outside its borders.

The report identifies four priority areas for tackling international spillovers:

  1. Rich countries should reform international development finance systems to, for instance, support climate change mitigation and adaptation in poor countries, protect the world’s forests, and combat illicit financial flows, unfair tax competition and profit shifting;
  2. Developed nations should provide technical cooperation and knowledge to support developing countries to meet the Sustainable Development Goals;
  3. Rich countries should set targets for, for instance, reducing imported consumption based emissions, reducing unsustainable consumption (e.g. by improving diets) and curbing trade in waste and toxic pesticides. Well-designed Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms could boost international adherence to emissions reduction promises;
  4. Improve data collection and reporting of negative impacts of international supply chains to improve monitoring and accountability.

Disappearing vertebrates

Every two years for the last 50, the WWF has presented the results of its monitoring of 32,000 populations of wildlife, principally vertebrates, around the world. This year, the Living Planet Report 2022 focuses on the double, interlinked emergencies of climate change and loss of biodiversity and the impacts they have on people and nature.

It’s impossible to summarise a report with such a broad scope but a few selected extracts will, perhaps, amuse your bouche:

  • Globally, population numbers of animals fell by a staggering 69% on average between 1970 and 2018. The shocking magnitude of the biodiversity crisis is forcefully brought home to me by realising that there are only a third as many wild animals in the world today as there were when I was twenty;
  • Worst affected have been Latin America with a 94% decrease in average population size and freshwater species with an 83% decline;
  • Land use change is the biggest current threat to animals and plants on land, in freshwater and in the oceans but if global warming reaches 1.5oC climate change will become the dominant cause of biodiversity loss. Of course, it’s unlikely that the magnitude of land use change and the damage it causes will have changed, just its ranking;
  • More than 1100 wildlife populations in Australia continue to decline as a result of climate change, habitat destruction and introduced predators. Koala populations have fallen by 50% in Queensland, NSW and the ACT in the last 20 years;
  • The east coast of Australia is one of the global hotspots of extinction risk to terrestrial mammals, amphibians and (particularly) birds and has been designated a high priority area for mitigating the risks posed by agriculture, hunting, logging, pollution, invasive species and climate change;
  • Australia’s current ecological footprint at over 6.7 global hectares per person is one of the highest in the world. The world’s current biocapacity is 1.6 global hectares per person;
  • Indigenous knowledge, practices and leadership are crucial to improving the care of the living planet.

Emphasising the report’s social perspective is recognition that building a positive, equitable and sustainable future is underpinned by moving from goals and targets to values and rights in policy making and day to day life. Only then will we stop destroying nature, move beyond net-zero loss and achieve net-positive nature restoration – more natural forests, more wetlands, more fish in the rivers and oceans, more pollinators, more biodiversity. The next Biological Diversity COP meeting in Canada in December provides an opportunity for steps to be taken in this direction.

As well as the main 100 page report, there’s a 9 page edition for young people that explains the double emergency (see graphic below), describes the transformations that are required to create a healthy living planet that works for nature and people, and suggests four things young people themselves can do now: make informed choices about what they do, buy and eat; speak up, including peaceful protesting; help nature to thrive where they live; and plan a sustainable career pathway.

Direct Air Capture (DAC) of CO2

How do we get on top of global warming? Basically, there are two routes: stop pumping greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere and augment nature’s efforts to remove the CO2 that’s already up there. These two approaches are potentially complementary, and some say absolutely necessary to keep warming under 2oC

Of the two, the first, stop putting GHGs into the air, is the best option and there are two ways of achieving this. First, rapidly reduce and then eliminate the actual production of GHGs by no longer burning fossil fuels and finding new ways of producing concrete, steel, fertilisers, etc. This is by far the most pressing, most practical and most economical option for limiting global warming. But that doesn’t prevent the fossil fuel industry and many pollies continuing to support a second option: the chronically underperforming technology that aims to capture and store CO2 after it has been produced but before it enters the atmosphere (carbon capture and storage or CCS). Most of us realise, however, that CCS is principally a screen to keep the fossil fuel industry going for as long as possible, not a realistic strategy to limit global warming.

The second route to limit global warming, removing CO2 after it has been released into the atmosphere, can be done in two ways. First, increase nature’s mammoth (but decreasing) absorption of CO2 from the air by preserving what remains of our trees, soils, mangroves, seagrasses, seaweed, etc., plus replacing lots of the nature that we have destroyed.

Or we can remove CO2 from the air using Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology. While this is still in its infancy, possibly not even out of the neonatal period, it does seem to have more potential in the long run than CCS. DAC has several advantages: it requires little space and it is not constrained by where it happens, so facilities can be built anywhere in the world – on, for instance, marginal or degraded land close to viable underground CO2 storage sites rather than on higher value industrial or agricultural land.

While there’s a long way to go before DAC makes a meaningful contribution to limiting global warming, I think the technology is worth watching.

Aaahhh! Cute

The WWF report has lots of great photos of animals, plants, landscapes and people. It’s difficult not to be touched by this Bengal tiger and her four month old cub in Ranthambore, India (page 9).

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