Why you can't have free trade and save the planet

Why you can't have free trade and save the planet
Credit: chuyuss / shutterstock

When Donald Trump recently announced tariffs on steel and aluminium imports he was condemned by proponents of free trade across the world. His critics said the US president had not understood how protectionist policies would spell disaster for the world economy. Fair enough. But this is the same Trump whose decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement also met with massive disapproval.

Trump is simultaneously chided for refusing to cut emissions, and for promoting a trade policy that reduces the causes of such emissions. Both sets of critics may be right on their own terms, but the contradiction between the two reproaches exposes big problems in the mainstream modern worldview. Is it really reasonable to advocate for both more trade and greater concern for the environment?

For centuries world trade has increased not only environmental degradation, but also global inequality. The expanding ecological footprints of affluent people are unjust as well as unsustainable. The concepts developed in wealthier nations to celebrate "growth" and "progress" obscure the net transfers of labour time and natural resources between richer and poorer parts of the world.

For instance, the household of an average American couple with one child has the equivalent of an invisible servant working full time for it outside the nation's borders, while the average Japanese household with one child uses three hectares of land overseas. Yet such material asymmetry appears to be a side issue for mainstream economists, who continue to assert the overall benefits of free trade.

This same ignorance is particularly apparent in the fight against climate change. Most environmentalists and researchers put their faith in new technologies for harnessing the sun and wind, and hope that politicians can be persuaded to act. But solar panels and wind farms are not merely products of human ingenuity that have been revealed to us by nature. Nor are they magical keys to limitless .

Renewable energy technologies emerged in this specific human society – inequality, globalisation and all – and their very feasibility is dependent on world market prices. Like other modern technologies they depend on high domestic purchasing power combined with cheap Asian labour, Brazilian land, or Congolese cobalt.

Why you can't have free trade and save the planet
Per capita net imports of resources to the EU, Japan and US in 2007. Credit: Dorninger and Hornborg, 2015, Author provided

Almost 50 years ago the ecological economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen warned that the notion that could replace fossil energy was an illusion, because it would require such enormous volumes of materials to harness the requisite amounts of diffuse sunlight to satisfy a modern high-tech society. Some of these materials are rare and expensive and degrade the environment. Moreover, the United Nations Environmental Programme recently warned that the world is heading for ecological disaster unless we use less resources per dollar of .

The Czech-Canadian energy researcher Vaclav Smil has found that switching to renewable energy would use up vast amounts of land, reversing the land-saving benefits of the Industrial Revolution. Meanwhile the money to invest in solar is still ultimately generated from cheap labour and cheap land. The fact that solar panels have recently become less expensive is partly because they are increasingly being manufactured by low-wage labour in Asia.

When viewed this way it is perhaps no wonder that renewable energy has not even begun to replace , and has only been added to the still-increasing use of oil, coal and gas. Solar power still only accounts for about 1% of global energy use. It has hardly made a dent on the global use of energy for electricity, industry, or transports. And this cannot be blamed on the oil lobby, as is illustrated by the case of Cuba. Nearly all of the island's electricity still derives from fossil fuels. There is obviously something problematic about shifting to solar power that goes beyond corporate obstruction. To explain it in terms of a lack of capital or in terms of the vast land requirements are two sides of the same coin.

So here is the impasse of modern civilization: the free trade promoted by most economists and politicians continues to drive a substantial part of the that they want to reduce, and yet the sustainable technologies they propose to cut emissions are in themselves dependent on economic growth, international trade, and the use of more and more natural resources.

So how to break this impasse? Economists could start by recognising that the economy is not insulated from nature, just as engineering is not insulated from world society. Global challenges of sustainability, justice and resilience all demand much more integrated thinking.

This will involve confronting conventional ideologies of technological progress and free trade. Rather than nervously safeguarding world trade with its escalating greenhouse gas emissions, we have every reason to reconsider what might be perceived as true human progress and quality of life. Instead of economic policies maximising economic growth and resource use, humankind needs to develop an economy that is aligned with the constraints of our fragile biosphere – and a science of engineering that takes account of global inequalities.


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Citation: Why you can't have free trade and save the planet (2018, May 1) retrieved 25 May 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2018-05-free-planet.html
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May 01, 2018
A more positive view of globalization would be Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker:
https://www.nytim...now.html

Original article and comments section of this piece by Alf Hornborg:
https://theconver...et-94128

"Globalization has led to a rise in global income inequality, not a reduction"
https://hbr.org/2...lization

May 01, 2018
Humankind has to reduce population growth drastically in order to continue living on this planet. The west has achieved zero growth through the emancipation of women, family planning, and ABORTION to the tune of 1/3 to 1/2 of pregnancies in many places.

But elsewhere religion still dictates the growth rate. And if we are to survive, the grip these religions have on the people has got to end.

May 01, 2018
Solar power still only accounts for about 1% of global energy use.


This is something that many people do not realize. To make a real dent in CO2 emissions, you need to transition away from fossil fuels not just for electricity production in certain developed countries, but for global energy use in general (and including the "fuel" part of fossil fuels, meaning practical and ubiquitous energy storage). Despite the hype, we have hardly even scratched a surface when it comes to this gargantuan task.

May 01, 2018
Renewable energy technologies emerged in this specific human society – inequality, globalisation and all – and their very feasibility is dependent on world market prices. Like other modern technologies they depend on high domestic purchasing power combined with cheap Asian labour, Brazilian land, or Congolese cobalt.

Erm, how about..no?
Asian labor or Congolese cobalt are required *nowhere* in renewable energy. (Cobalt is used in lithium ion batteries, but that is not without alternatives). Asian labor is not required for cheap solar and much less for cheap wind power.

Yes, global trade increases inequality - but it also makes some stuff possible that would otherwise not be (e.g. not every nation having to develop every little bit of tech and product of their own - which would be a huge waste though duplicate effort).

The thing that has made inequality worse is greed. Inequality through greed is an effect of *any* kind of trade - not just global one.

May 02, 2018
In other words... we need a Resource based economy as proposed by The Venus Project.

May 03, 2018
Instead of economic policies maximising economic growth and resource use...

Yah. Freedom sucks. Let's try the alternative. That's what Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Chavez and the Norks did. I hear it didn't go so well.

humankind needs to develop an economy that is aligned with the constraints of our fragile biosphere – and a science of engineering that takes account of global inequalities.

Uh huh, sure. That's what we need. Never mind that every government that tried to get rid of "inequalities" succeeded in making everyone equally impoverished and miserable while simultaneously pillaging their environment. Let's pay attention to history and learn from it for a change. Socialism and centrally-controlled economies are stunning failures.

The countries that take care of their environment the best are also the most free, with vibrant capitalist (in other words, free) economies.

Read more at: https://phys.org/...html#jCp

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