The increasingly free flow of goods, services and information across national boundaries has had wide ranging and complex effects on societies and economies. With both of these being linked to the environment, as you might expect, globalisation has also impacted the world’s environment. In some ways, globalisation has benefited the environment but overall the impacts have not been especially positive.
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Perhaps the most obvious impact of a substantial increase international trade is the shipping. Moving fruit across continents takes a lot more energy than selling them in the next village. To build something like a car, the raw materials might be extracted from one country, the component parts made in several others, the car built in another and sold in yet another, with each stage burning up fossil fuels as the items are carted hundreds of miles a time. This all adds up to more carbon emissions, with the Guardian reporting over a billion tonnes of CO2 emitted each year just during the transport of goods by sea. Air and land transport add a considerable amount more.
Some countries have stricter laws on pollution than others and globalisation allows businesses to take full advantage of this. Poorer countries in particularly might not be able to afford too many restrictions on industry. This means that if a company wants to build something or extract something and the cheapest way to do this is in a less-than-responsible manner, it can simply outsource the process. You might not get away with polluting the drinking water of thousands of people in Western Europe or North America, at least not for long, but companies do this all the time in parts of Africa, South America and Asia, wrecking the environment, ruining people’s livelihoods and sometimes costing them their lives. For example, the oil industry in Nigeria has been the cause of 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, according to the Nigerian government’s own figures. One of the worst occurred in December 2012, with over 40,000 barrels of oil being spilt.
The impact of globalisation on agriculture has arguably been one of the most environmentally and socially destructive, primarily because it encourages the growing of single species monocrops by large corporations at the expense of small scale farming. This threatens food security in developing countries, increases the use of agricultural chemicals and reduces biodiversity. In some cases, growing the the most profitable crops most efficiently necessitates the destruction of large swathes of natural habitats. One example is the production of palm oil, mostly for export, in Indonesia, which is the main cause of the country losing over six million acres of rainforest a year.
The trade in endangered species
Not all of the increase in global trade is legal. A flourishing trade in the meat, skins, ivory and other parts of various endangered species not to mention the trade in live animals as exotic pets still goes on. Some of it is legal despite the pressure it is putting on sometimes critically endangered species, some, for example the trade in rhino horns, is most certainly not. Often, there is little market for the animals (or parts thereof) in the source country, but globalisation means that there is a market further afield. An example is the trade in animal pelts from Canada. The annual seal hunt used to be lucrative, with a ready market for the pelts in Europe and Russia, although not so much Canada itself. Both destinations eventually banned the import of seal skins, making the hunt a lot less economically viable, but there is still a lucrative export trade in polar bear pelts, mainly to Russia, narwhal horns and other novelty items taken from the country’s wildlife. Other high profile examples are whale meat from Scandinavian countries to Japan and the aforementioned rhino horns from Africa to Asia.
On the plus side
The rise in international trade has gone alongside a rise in international communication, which can have a beneficial impact on the environment. People now know what is going on in other countries, although a lot depends on the media and others publicising matters. As little as 20 years ago, it is unlikely that most people would have known about the sweatshops a clothing company is operating on the other side of the world or the damage that an oil company is doing in the high Arctic. Now they can find out almost as these things happen. How much a better-informed populace will actually negate the more destructive elements of globalisation still, however, remains to be seen.
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- The Guardian: True Scale of CO2 Emissions from Shipping Revealed
- BBC News: Nigeria Oil Spills -- Shell Rejects Liability Claim
- The Guardian: Nigeria’s Agony Dwarfs the Gulf Oil Spill. The US and Europe Ignore It.
- Reuters: Nigeria Coast Braces for Biggest Oil Spill in 13 Years
- Orangutan Foundation International: Indonesian Forest Facts