Green Globalization? An examination of the benefits and consequences of globalization on our planet and its people

Green Globalization? An examination of the benefits and consequences of globalization on our planet and its people

 By Matthew Capuano-Rizzo

An interconnected world economy

The continued promotion of free trade agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the forthcoming creation of the world’s largest free trade area in the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), evokes an examination of globalization’s social and environmental consequences. One of the largest consequences of increased economic production, spurred by increased economic integration is climate change. Levels of carbon dioxide, advised by scientists to never exceed 350 parts per million, recently surpassed 415 parts per million. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2018 Special Report on 1.5 degrees, “human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels.” The report stated with high confidence that “pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.” More than half of all industrial carbon dioxide pollution has been emitted since 1988, with 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions. Nations such as the United States, whose citizens emit 16.6 tonnes of CO2 per capita, hold significant responsibility – as do  China, India, Russia, and the European Union. The large portion of global emissions emitted since the beginning of globalization prompts investigation into globalization’s impact on the environment.  

Globalization’s impacts : Land

A dried lake bed on the outskirts of Chennai, India, in May. ARUN SANKAR/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The development of a global market for agricultural products has contributed to land-use changes, notably the conversion of forested land into agricultural land for beef, soy, palm oil, and wood production. Although the forest sector and related forestry industries sustain 13.4 million  and 41 million jobs respectively, 502,000 square miles or 1.3 million square km, “an area bigger than the size of South Africa” has been lost in the past 25 years. Agriculture and Forestry contribute to 11% and 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions respectively and such land conversions threaten the 500 million people who live in areas that experience desertification as a result of “soil erosion on crop lands.” The Lake Chad basin, for example, in the Sahel region of sub-saharan Africa, shrank from 25,000 to 2,000 square kilometers, worsening food security, increasing regional conflict, and reinforcing the connection between climate change and human rights.  

As global temperatures continue to rise, with the last five years from 2014 to 2018 as the warmest years ever recorded, the increased need to feed the world’s growing population could be met with a decreased capacity of agricultural markets to provide such sustenance. In the United States climate-change attributed severe weather led to “more than 19.4 million acres of farmland nationwide weren’t planted due to record spring rains and historic, catastrophic flooding.” 

To improve climate resilience and soil fertility, sequester carbon, and feed people, a coalition of NGOs recently announced an $85 million agroforestry initiative in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Agroforestry refers to land that combines trees with crops, and the technique along with increased use of technology to increase resource efficiency serve as solutions to climate change’s threat to agriculture as well as the industry’s contribution to the problem. Argentina, for example, one of the world’s largest agricultural producers, exports soy, wheat, corn, and fruits among other crops. A new digital farming platform developed by the organization  Asociacion de Cooperativas Argentinas promises to result in a 10% increase in production through analysis of the specific fertilizer and water needs of each crop. Furthermore, farmers in the Grand-Est region of France, which includes Reims, have installed the most anaerobic digestion factories in the country to convert organic waste into energy. In the Midwest of the United States, wind energy allows farmers to maintain a source of income in the face of poor growing seasons attributed to climate change. 

Agricultural subsidies allow the United States to exist as the largest agricultural exporter in the world and France as a significant player in Europe. In lieu of addressing the problems created by such subsidies, the embracing of sustainable technologies and practices such as regenerative agriculture by the world’s biggest agricultural producers is crucial in limiting global emissions to 1.5 degrees celsius, a goal that can only be achieved through the international cooperation globalization facilitates.  


“The likelihood of disease increases from 4 percent to 89 percent when corals are in contact with plastic,” according to the journal Science. 

Photo Credit : Michael O’Neill/Science Source

Globalization’s impacts: Water 

During the beginning of globalization in the 1990s, “plastic waste generation had more than tripled in two decades” and in the early 2000s, “plastic waste rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years”. Global demand for plastic is set to raise plastic production by 40% in the next decade. At present, China (30%) and the European Union (18.5%) contribute to the more than 348 million tonnes of plastic, 40% of which is single-use, produced each year, in products shipped around the world. In South-East Asia, plastic pollution costs tourism, fishing, and shipping industries $1.3 billion per year. In addition to the 18 billion pounds (around 8 billion kg) of plastic waste that flows into coastal regions each year, plastic production on land, derived from fossil fuels such as natural gas contributes directly to climate change through the burning of greenhouse gases. 

Historically, globalization has connected economies through oil gas and coal resources and today, world energy consumption powered 80% by fossil fuels. The country of Norway has employed the exporting of fossil fuels to elevate its citizens to enjoying one of the highest GDP per capita rankings in the world. Despite the government’s implementation of a carbon budget and significant divestment of fossil fuel interests, Norway has authorized increased Arctic drilling. As global demand for energy rises at an ever-increasing rate, the ocean continues to absorb one third of global carbon emissions. Warming water combined with the ocean acidification such absorbing creates threatens the ocean with “ecological collapse,” particularly threatening coral reefs that provide the world economy $375 billion each year in goods and services such as tourism and fish. 

According to the United Nations 2018 State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report, “fish and fish products are some of the most traded food items in the world today,” demonstrated by the 245% increase in exports between 1976 and 2016. 92.91% of the world’s marine stocks are either maximally sustainably fished or overfished. The depletion of wild stocks due to overfishing, ocean acidification, and climate change has led to a structural shift in the seafood market. Although the marine aquaculture market is the fastest growing food production sector, surpassing wild fisheries as the main seafood provider, antibiotic use, dependence on wild stocks, and the introduction of destructive invasive species threaten its long term sustainability.    

Globalization’s impacts: Equity 

In a survey of Sciences Po students, more than 52.9% of respondents found that the economic system is most responsible for the ecological consequences of a globalized economy. Such an analysis stems from principles of “neoliberal globalization” such as “the relaxation of work rules,” “increased deregulation,” and a resulting “increasing precariousness” for the planet and its people. Specifically in Latin America, neoliberal reforms promoted by the Washington consensus brought economic growth to the detriment of job creation and led to increases in “income distribution inequalities over the last few decades.”  

Furthermore, poor and often minority communities are disproportionately affected by climate change’s effects. For example, a study of 23 cities found a clear correlation between lower-income neighborhoods and higher temperatures, particularly alarming as heat is globally the number one weather related killer. Disillusionment with inequality shaped by globalization’s favoring of comparative advantage, apparent not just in Mexico, but around the world has favored populist leaders who question the liberal global economic order and often propose nativist and ethnocentric policies. Such leaders are often resistant to environmental regulation and meaningful climate action, a stance that perpetuates the inequality they decry. 

Addressing the ecological consequences of a globalized economic system necessarily includes an examination of the injustices, exploitations, and inequalities our economic system has perpetuated and continues to promote. In the absence of government regulation to ensure economic actors account for the societal consequences of their products, corporations, the second principal actor according to the Sciences Po survey, may continue to deliver profits to their stakeholders regardless of the cost on the planet and its people. Although sustainability commitments by universities and businesses are crucial steps towards decarbonization, the urgence of the planetary crisis questions whether such steps will be enough.   



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Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in Sciences Po’s The Quarterly

Matthew is currently pursuing his studies in sustainability at Columbia University.

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