Think global, act sustainable...

Globalisation and the environment

Little of any long-term significance will be achieved in the conservation of the environment without support from the private sector. The increasing shift towards corporate globalization means that decision-making at large transnational companies is often more influential than local and regional policy-making.

Statistics illustrate the point. In 1996, foreign exchange trading by big investors amounted to $350 million million - ten times the world's GDP.

Private foreign investment, concentrated primarily in middle-income countries in Asia and Latin America, was US$250,000 million - compared to overseas development assistance (ODA) of US$50,000 million.

Indeed, ODA from governments is generally decreasing. While this reduces the ability to deliver public goods, private concerns such as transnational corporations, banks and pension funds are unlikely to pick up the bill for public health and environmental infrastructure costs.

This situation is exacerbated by the massive debt burden which affects developing countries, notably in Africa. Environmental protection is often one of the first things to be cut back to finance interest payments.

Globalization is a concern at a number of levels. From a purely practical point of view, it drives global demand for an unsustainable level of consumption. At a time when the developed world needs to cut back on per capita consumption, transnational businesses are building a "vast global middle class," says GEO-2000. "What will be the environmental impact of 3-4 billion consumers with rising incomes, who all want to live an affluent lifestyle?"

Clearly, improved living conditions are highly desirable if sustainable. "But since some planetary resources may be too limited to support this increased consumption, how will resulting tensions (with the billions of poor) be resolved?"

Globalization has other harmful impacts on the environment, such as "stratospheric ozone depletion, climate change driven by global warming and the worldwide spread of persistent organic pollutants," says GEO-2000.

Biological globalization is also a concern. Travel and trade allow organisms to move around the world and invade new environments - sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident.

However benefits from standardising business processes in order to maximise productivity and profit may prove to be short-lived, says GEO-2000. The danger is that newly-introduced methods of cultivation may "upset the ecological balance and crowd out desirable, useful or perhaps unique species. Many varieties and breeds, often evolved over centuries of local selection, have desirable features that adapt them to particular local environments, resisting specific diseases and environmental extremes."

Such diversity may be the answer to sustainable agriculture. "Excessive globalization today could destroy much of the potential for agriculture tomorrow," warns GEO-2000.

International trade, like globalization, cannot be divorced from environmental concerns. Clearly, trade can increase wealth for many countries - which is part of the reason why the world is moving headlong towards increased trade liberalization.

But it can also harm the environment. "Where environmental issues are not incorporated in economic prices and decision-making, trade can magnify unsustainable patterns of economic activity and resource exploitation," says GEO-2000.

A disturbing dimension to this problem has emerged recently as countries challenge national environmental protection measures on the ground that they erect barriers to trade. Efforts to protect sea turtles, dolphins and sea birds have been struck down for exactly this reason.

As part of its recommendations in GEO-2000, UNEP stresses the need for linkages between trade and international finance on the one hand and environmental policy on the other. While the finance world is now beginning to make such linkages, there is much more to be done in assessing the impact of trade liberalization.

One positive development to emerge from the growth of the private sector is increased militancy on behalf of its customer-base. NGOs, civil society groups and stake-holders "now form influential lobby groups - as well as spearheading a wide range of environmental-related activities at grass roots level."

In turn, some areas of the private sector have responded to the concerns of their consumers by introducing codes of conduct, responsible care programmes and voluntary reporting on environmental activities. There is no room for complacency however. "Improved environmental performance of large-scale industry has not been echoed by small and medium-sized firms which need both help and encouragement," says GEO-2000.

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