Is globalization an environmentalist’s best friend or foe? This question is debated by some within the environmentalist community very passionately. As a writer for Cleantechnica.com, who has written about renewable energy stories and its advancements across the globe, along with my environmental economics background from my time at the University of Winnipeg, has helped me understand the complexities of this issue.
One the one hand, Those environmentalists who oppose globalization have sufficient data to support their claim. It has been quite well documented that carbon emission levels since the start of the industrial revolution have skyrocketed. Carbon emission levels have increased from 283 parts per million (ppm) in 1800, to the current CO2 level of approximately 396ppm.
Add to that, carbon emission levels have jumped between 355ppm at the end of 1991 at the end of the Cold War, to now to the current level. If you further investigate these numbers, the biggest jump occurring in this time frame was when China entered into the World Trade Organization back in 2001, jumping from around 370ppm-371ppm level to 396ppm now.
The spike in carbon emissions has contributed to the increase in surface temperature of 1.4 Fahrenheit (0.8 Celcius) in the past one-hundred years. Approximately two-thirds of the increase has occured in the past 32 years.
As the temperature rise, thanks to a fossil fuel based global economy, the Arctic ice continues to dwindle, ecosystems threaten, and more extreme weather increases. The list could go on, and on.
I can understand the concern some of the base on some of the statistics I have rattled off pertaining to carbon emission levels and their stunning jump within the past twenty or so years. I can understand why some would want to blame economic growth. Yes, sadly we as humans waste a lot of natural resources to keep the globalized economic system churning through fossil fuels.
However, I disagree with some of globalization`s opponents that we should go back to wearing sweaters, riding bicycles or composting all the time. It is a lot more challenging than what some of the suggestions Bill McKibben of going to a hyper local economy, and cutting off global trade.
I think globalization, despite its faults, can provide a tremendous opportunity to solve the pressing environmental issues. It was the information technology (IT) revolution that cut the cost in communications, making it possible for those who could not afford communication, before to leapfrog older technologies.
The same is possible for environmental issues. Globalization and the potential to share talent, ideas. Globalization also has the potential of lowering the costs of renewable energy to make it possible for poor countries to leapfrog more polluting technologies and escape energy poverty.
We are seeing the cost continue to fall for renewable energy across the globe. The following text from Clean Edge`s Clean Energy Trends 2012 outlook explains this:
“As noted above, the scale up of renewables is apparent in the rapidly declining costs and resulting
increase in deployment of a host of clean technologies, most notably solar PV. Solar cells, which are
mostly made from silicon (the same basic material used in manufacturing computer chips), are now
exhibiting economies of scale seen in earlier high-tech revolutions such as personal computers and
cell phones. Between 2007 and 2011, solar PV total system costs (including PV modules, balance
of system components, and installation) dropped by more than half, with complete systems being
installed globally in 2011 at an average $3.47 a peak watt or 14 to 23 cents per kWh. Contrary to
Solyndra’s critics who say the industry isn’t ready for prime time, solar is, in fact, becoming increasingly cost-competitive (making it difficult for high-cost providers like Solyndra to survive).
Clean Edge historical data and projections …. show that solar PV is on a steep price decline
that is bringing it into cost parity at the retail level (for residential, commercial, and industrial
applications), and increasingly competitive at utility scale, far sooner than many had projected.“
The report also noted that global investment in solar energy dramatically increased from US$2.5 billion in 2000 to US$91.6 in 2011. Wind energy in the same period from US$4.o billion to US$71.5 billion. Global biofuel investment increased between 2005 (US$15.7 billion) and 2011 (US$83.0 billion).
The analysis given has shown the substantial growth of renewable energy roughly in the past 15 years. I doubt it that renewable energy would have grown significantly without information technology (IT) and globalization. I think as a society we are more well equipped to deploy the technologies needed to create an environmentally sustainable economy now, then right before the end of the Cold War. I think that without the infrastructure from the IT revolution, people would not be as informed about climate change or renewable energy had the IT revolution, or the Internet was not around.
As the paperback edition of the excellent business book Macrowikinomics written by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams put it nicely regarding the sustainable economy:
” The fossil fuel-based economy is coming to an end and a new green energy economy is emerging in it’s place. Like past energy revolutions, there will be great payoffs for the countries and companies that master the new technologies early. The opportunity for new product and service innovation is huge, as is the potential for smart firms to create hundreds of thousands of new high-skill jobs in fields ranging from solar engineering to software.” (P. 100)
Quite frankly, Globalization, despite all of its problems could still end up being an environmentalist’s best friend.