Rethinking globalisation for a sustainable recovery

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A transformative Covid recovery must depart from the narratives of green capitalism and safe globalisation.

The recovery from Covid-19 represents a rapidly closing window to steer humanity clear of ecological crisis. 

Economic recovery from Covid-19 is underway within individual countries and globally, with governments injecting trillions to rescue businesses and workers. 

The pandemic has sunk the global economy into a sudden and protracted recession, 55 million workers have been acutely affected, and 70-100 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty with millions more expected to fall below the poverty line.

Many are asking, when can things return to normal? But just how secure is a post-Covid world built in the image of our pre-Covid era? This question carries great importance within the context of our climate and ecological emergency. 

Crisis

Covid-19 demonstrates how governments and businesses are poorly prepared in the face of global risks. Climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and resource insecurity will, by comparison, be far less predictable and straightforward to manage.

The recovery from Covid-19 represents a rapidly closing window to steer humanity clear of these crises. 

The post-Covid era offers a turning point from the current course of development and policy inaction, which has failed to curtail human pressure on planetary systems thus far. Practically, what might this involve?

In contrast to Covid-19, climate and ecological crises cannot be mitigated by a vaccine or by instructing people to stay in doors.

My recent study, published in Global Environmental Change, suggests countries may hold more in common than first thought when it comes to the environmental risks they face and drive across their supply chains. 

Trade

By combining big data on macroeconomic flows of goods and their resource use, I studied the water, energy and land footprints of national consumption across 189 countries, within and beyond their borders. I found countries were highly exposed, directly (via domestic production) and indirectly (via imports), to over-exploited, insecure, and degraded water, energy, and land resources.

However, international trade, mainly from remote production sources, accounted for around 80-90 percent of these risks. For example, 80 percent of the UK’s water footprint is imposed outside of the country and nearly 70 percent relies on medium-high risk sources, from as far as Australia, Argentina and India.

In several dozen countries, national consumption was more dependent on water, energy and land resources abroad than within their own country. 

If not for the risks of Covid, escalating trade wars, and election tampering, the interconnectedness of countries poses a systemic risk to national and global sustainability. My research builds on a growing body of evidence which suggests progress addressing the climate and ecological crisis will be won or lost over international trade.

Recovery

We can no longer blindly assume that globalisation is a source of security. As developed countries strive to repair trade links and as the UK pursues trade deals beyond Europe, we need to ask if and how globalisation can address the unsustainable forms of production, consumption and trade it continues to maintain.

We must also question the scale of consumption impacts, which vary massively between developed and developing countries. 

‘Green Economic Recovery' (GER) has become an important aspect of the overall policy response to the current coronavirus crisis. However, as it is currently deployed, the GER agenda does not appear to signal a turning point in the exploitative relationship between socio-economic systems and the environment.

Most GER commitments focus on greening Covid-19 stimulus spending. This helps, but a study of stimulus Covid-related across 50 largest economies, found only 0.2 percent of funds are targeting green measures. Call me a sceptic, but it seems the GER agenda represents a trojan horse for these same ineffective and damaging policies that predated Covid.

Transformation

In order to be truly transformative, GER from Covid-19 must represent a departure from the narratives of green capitalism and safe globalisation.

Countries need to cooperate on the basis that they face and drive common environmental risks in their supply chains. Outsourcing pollution might shift the costs of consumption elsewhere but it degrades the living systems on which we all depend.

Failure to critically evaluate the course mapped out for society and economies post-Covid risks planetary destruction. Covid shows us that business-as-usual is not an option in response to public health, nor is it adequate to deal with the climate and ecological crisis.

This Author

Dr Oliver Taherzadeh is a senior researcher at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto, Japan.

MERCH

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