Globalization has and will continue to have major impacts on environmental and thus human security. “Increased population densities, lack of context appropriate knowledge, low levels of capital and weak institutional arrangements usually result in sever ecological damage.” (Khagram, et al., 2003, p. 295) Therefore, environmental health must take centre stage in our view of human security, as economic growth, global investments and trade liberalization, along with increase in production and consumption have created strong ripple effects in our global environmental pond.
Proponents of trade liberalization argue that long term economic growth will improve the institutions that govern environmental reform, while improving the governance structures that support them. (Dauvergne, 2005, p. 382) This argument is based strongly on the environmental Kuznets Curve (below), which suggests that as incomes rise, pollution levels will follow, until a crux is reached at which point global resources and institutions, technologies, regulations and ecological trade markets will ‘catch up’, allowing those countries in the first half of the curve to “tunnel through”, eventually decreasing pollution levels. (Dauvergne, 2005, p. 382)
This idea claims that free trade encourages efficient global production, transfer of technologies from the North to South and will result in higher environmental standards. It has many shortcoming, however, as it doesn’t accurately represent that trade barriers distort prices of natural resources, thus fuelling waste and overconsumption, that some environmental damage is irreversible and that international environmental protection policies need first to be put in place and subsequently followed and monitored in order to be successful.
Environmental Standards and Exploitation
There is evidence that trade can put pressure on corporations with low environmental standards to raise them to gain access to different markets, as was the case when the auto industry in Japan and Germany adjusted emission standards to compete with Californian standards (Dauvergne, 2005). However, on the flip-side restricting trade is sometimes necessary for protection of endangered species or control of use and disposal of chemical and other hazardous waste.
Some transnational corporations (TNC’s) operate at a higher standard than local laws call for a variety of reasons: partly because they have access to “more sophisticated technologies and management techniques; partly because of pressure from states, NGO’s, shareholders and consumers; partly because of internal codes of conduct and risk-management strategies; and partly because the resulting efficiencies can provide a competitive advantage.” (Dauvergne, 2005, p. 383) However, this is certainly not always the case and double standards are common. TNC’s are widely known to apply lower standards in countries with weaker laws, including General Electric, Ford and GM who operate in Mexico to avoid California’s emission laws, or Union Carbide, the American company responsible for a massive methyl isocyanate leak which caused the greatest chemical disaster in history, all because they were operating at a low standard in India. During this disaster in 1984, an estimated 2,000-5,000 people died immediately, with aid organizations estimating up to 15,000 died in the weeks following the accident. (Vince, 2009): “This is a tragedy that could so easily have been avoided. If cost-cutting officials at the plant had not shutdown the tank's regulatory pressurisation and refrigeration systems; if the valves had been maintained properly and not allowed to leak water into the gas tank, sparking a catastrophic runaway reaction; if the vapour absorption ("scrubbing") system had been in use, it might never have happened.” (Vince, 2009)
Critics of globalization claim that it distances production from consumption, thus removing the immediate ecological effects of individual actions and that trade can put a downward pressure on environmental standards in a “race to the bottom”. Free trade also often translates into patterns of exchange that exploit the labour and environments of the South, especially in mining, textiles and electronic factories in Latin America, Africa and the Asia-Pacific. In 2014, computer e-waste being transferred from Vancouver’s port to recycling facilities in Pakistan and Hong Kong was stopped upon arrival for being in violation of the Basel convention. (Pynn, 2014). The Basel convention was adopted in 1989 as “an international law designed to protect human and environmental health from dangerous recycling”. (Pynn, 2014, p.1)
It becomes clear from these examples that the effectiveness of environmental standards is dependent on the breadth and scope of the guidelines and the strength of the state and inter-state policies in place to support them. (Dauvergne, 2005, p. 387)
Technology Transfer, Consumption and Sustainable Use of Resources
In the Kuznets curve model, technology transfer from developed economies is argued to be one of the key tools to lift developing nations out of high pollution levels. However, that argument neglects the trend that overproductions and overconsumption (by the North) may override environmental gains, for example in the race for new computer technologies (and the subsequent tech waste that follows). There has been a fourfold rise in energy consumption since World War II and “the North, with about 15 percent of the global population, accounts for about three-quarters of global consumption” (Dauvergne, 2005, p. 384)
Trade liberalization also does not take into account resource capture which occurs when supply of a resources decreases, thus increasing demand and encouraging “the more powerful groups in a society to exercise more control and even ownership of the scarce resource, thereby enhancing their wealth and power.” (Khagram, et al., 2003, p. 295) Along with enhancing wealth and power, we know that putting resources into the hands of few can have a detrimental impact on the access to resources for the poor which then often spirals into unsustainable use and competition (possibly leading to conflict) over what resources are available. Overconsumption and other unsustainable uses of resources encouraged can lead to irreplaceable damage to biodiversity or species, eruption of mass ecological change, declining of one toxic substance leads to rise of another, and regional shifts that can sometimes mask negative environmental impacts (ex. shifting production offshore).
It is clear that left to insufficient or weakly held checks and balances, globalization and free trade liberalization do not inherently treat the environment as an entity worth protecting in its own right, rather, ecological security will result only from a conscious implementation of a complex interplay of factors: “new consumption patterns, innovative markets, technological advances, corporate ethics, and cooperation [are necessary] to ensure a sustainable global economy.” (Dauvergne, 2005, p. 386) I think Khagram, Clark & Raad said if perfectly: “efforts to protect nature will fail unless they simultaneously advance the cause of human betterment; efforts to better the lives of people will fail if they fail to conserve, if not enhance, essential resources and life support systems.” (Khagram, Clark & Raad, 2003, p. 289) The high rate of compliance with the international ozone regime is proof that multilateral action and global regimes can work, but the jury is still out on the success of collaboration on climate change, deforestation and water health.