Overseas goods have a hidden environmental ‘catastrophic footprint’ – new report

Environmental disasters are increasingly a fact of life around the world. Every year, floods, droughts and landslides affect tens of millions of people, leaving widespread human and economic destruction in their wake. The cost to human life and livelihood each year is enormous.

Yet their labeling as “natural” disasters or “works of God” has pushed them as difficult to predict and avoid. While the effects of climate change are being felt more clearly, their severity is expected to worsen and their reduce the ability to predict. As global temperatures continue to rise, we face a future world increasingly defined by disaster.

We are increasingly aware of the correlation between these extreme events and the carbon emissions from our electricity generation, transportation and food production. But an important aspect that is often overlooked is the foreign goods. By buying goods made overseas, we effectively outsource our emissions – with consequences for areas increasingly affected by environmental disasters.

In a newly reported report, Trade in disaster, I and other experts in supply chain analysis, contain emissions and construction taking into account the environmental and human impacts of international trade. We have shown that our trade is not only a carbon footprint but also has a “catastrophic footprint”.

The UK and many other rich countries in Europe are committed to ambitious emissions targets including apparent success. But once you consider foreign goods, the achievements of such policies are overstated.

Many of the environmental gains achieved by major polluters come from unsustainable emissions reductions, but from the shift of carbon -intensive processes to manufacturing bases in developing countries. Clothes or building materials used in the UK still need to be made, but their production abroad allows the emissions associated with their manufacture to be adjusted more strictly and more carefully.

UK production emissions declined, but consumption emissions remained high. There is a similar thing that has happened to many other rich countries that have imported a lot of goods.

Consequently, while emissions produced within UK borders declined by 41% between 1990 and 2016, emissions from products consumed by British people declined by only 15%. As of 2016, almost half of UK emissions were produced overseas, compared to 14% in 1990.

Worse still, the process of transferring these emissions creates emissions of its own. A country’s carbon footprint is increasingly global, mobile, and harder to define as a result.

In fact, there is a growing recognition that national accounting of carbon use may be at the root of the more general failure to produce a collective emergence in carbon emissions. The ability of rich countries to effectively outsource emissions to the less affluent has been described as “carbon colonialism”.

There is increasing concern over the effectiveness of emissions targets based on what countries produce themselves, allowing more greenhouse gas emissions to be “flow through the carbon loophole”Of international trade. In total, imported emissions already account for a quarter of global CO₂ emissions, making it next frontier of climate policy.

Yet the carbon footprint alone doesn’t tell the whole story. As emissions continue to rise around the world, increasing the risk of natural hazards such as drought, flooding and landslides, the associated impact of goods and investment from countries with a lot of depletion is worsening. And these risks tend to be higher in poorer, exporting countries than in rich countries that buy their goods.

A palm tree in the middle of the field

Deforestation in Cambodia.
Asian / shutterstock Images

For example in Cambodia, from where the UK imports 4% of its garments, factories supplying garments for the British market have been linked to carbon-intensive energy generation, large-scale deforestation, and mismanagement of water resources, exacerbating the effects of thirst.

In South Asia, from where the UK imports a growing proportion of its bricks, brick making plays a major role in destroying the environment, generating thirst and flooding, while weakening agricultural livelihoods.

In Sri Lanka, a major exporter of tea for the British market, a combination of increasingly intense and unpredictable rainfall, with the embarrassing housing infrastructure that has gradually weakened by these conditions, has translated into a dismal tendency to landslides.

The UK’s ‘catastrophic footprint’ extends to Sri Lanka’s growing tea regions.
Laurie Parsons, Provided by the author

The effects of climate change, including the catastrophic droughts and floods, are therefore effectively sold by rich countries and imported by the less affluent as the price of economic growth. In the meantime, this environmental degradation remains obscured by an emphasis on the state of the country, which is no longer appropriate for a globalized and cohesive world. Looking at it, what is needed is a new notion: one that recognizes disasters not as autonomous emergence or globally driven, but that are rooted in specific processes of industry, commodity and consumption.

By degrading environments in this way, international trade practices are delivering and amplifying the effects of climate change and making natural disasters more likely. The result is that when the UK and other countries import goods, they effectively export disasters, not only contributing to climate change around the world, but also exacerbating its effects on specific location. Yet despite the severity of this global footprint of the catastrophe, the effects on commodity goods were not recorded in UK statistics or strategy on climate change.

As our new report shows, disasters may be unpredictable, but they are anything but random. As the climate continues to change, the global systems we rely on in our daily lives will play a greater role in shaping the catastrophe and severity of disasters that contribute to their development in developing countries.

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