Environmental risks

Transboundary pollution (TBP) affecting a large area

Transboundary pollution is defined as ‘pollution that originates in one country but, by crossing a border through pathways of water or air, is able to cause damage to the environment in another country’ (OECD).

Examples include:

  • Forest fires in Indonesia in 2015 produced a lot of smog as a result of the clearing of farms in preparation for the next growing season. This is intensified by prevailing dry winds and usually takes place of palm oil plantations, resulting in the spread of smoke to other neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. This causes smoke-related diseases in the affected countries.

Indonesia wildfires: everything you need to know

Forest fires in Indonesia choke much of South East Asia

  • Acid rain in Europe, especially in the Swiss Alps, is caused by the production of carbon monoxide produced by industries in the United Kingdom, which is carried across the English Channel to the Alps and other neighbouring countries. This results in the destruction of vegetation in the Alps and causes cracks on buildings and other structures.
  • Also, thermal power plants in Ohio Valley sometimes produce sulfur dioxide which goes as far as Canada to cause damage.
  • Chinese pollution from the industries in Shenzhen reaching Japan
  • Radioactive leak from Fukushima reaching the shores of the USA.

Note that not all major pollution problems are considered transboundary pollution. For example, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 is a local event, because it only affected the coast of the United States, even though the oil spilled near the Mexican border with the United States.

One TBP case study, including the consequences and possible responses

Environmental impacts of global flows at varying scales:

Localized pollution resulting from the global flow of goods

Globalization has led to the transportation of goods due to an increase in global trade between countries. Consequently, the flow of goods has led to some countries suffering the negative effects of globalization. Some examples of localized pollution resulting from global flows include:

  • Ship-breaking is undertaken in Bangladesh on a large scale. These ships are usually old, decommissioned ships that need to be recycled. Because Bangladesh offers cheap labour, most companies transport the ships there for recycling. This ends up causing pollution in the country; damaging water bodies and impacting the health of the people involved.
  • Trafigura is another example of a petrochemical company that shipped toxic/hazardous waste from Switzerland to the Ivory Coast and cause serious pollution to areas around the port and beyond. It is believed that a number of people lost their lives in the process of transferring the waste from the ship to the countryside.

Trafigura found guilty of exporting toxic waste

  • The transportation of e-waste from the US and EU to Ghana, Agbogbloshie, has resulted in the pollution of water bodies and the discharge of mercury as well as other hazardous substances, causing land pollution and impacting negatively on the health of the people involved in dismantling the e-waste.

Agbogloshie, the world’s largest e-waste dump

  • Other examples include Shell polluting the lands and water bodies of the people of Ogoniland, in Southeastern Nigeria. The oil spills from Shell have led to the destruction of vegetation, bushfires, loss of aquatic life and destruction of life and property worth millions of dollars.
A man searches through piles of discarded computer circuit boards and computer monitors at Agbogbloshie, Accra – Ghana. Picture by Peter Nicholls-The Times-15/07/09
  • The collapse of a dam constructed by a mining company in Brumadinho, Brazil in 2019 caused the death of about seven persons and over 200 people missing due to mining activities
  • Transfer of invasive alien species: through ballast water and on ship hulls(WWF). Ships load water for balance and stability when cargo levels are low, and then release the water when they pick up new cargo at another port. Some 10 billion tonnes of this ballast water is transferred around the world each year. Ballast water is loaded with thousands of marine species, including plankton, algae, fish, jellyfish, and other invertebrates. Most of the fauna and flora are not able to survive in their new environment when released from the ship. But some can – and only too well. These aliens can become invasive, rapidly out-competing local fauna or flora. They can alter the entire local ecology, leading to the collapse of fisheries and threatening endangered species. Exotic algal species can also pose a risk to human health by contaminating seafood. Indeed, alien invasive species can be as damaging as oil spills, and their effects much more persistent (panda.org)
  • The Great Garbage Patch

Another type of localized pollution that has a global impact is plastic pollution. It is estimated that by 2050, 1,100 million tonnes of plastic will be produced globally, consisting of plastic bottles, discarded mobile phones, lego bricks, toothbrushes, shampoo caps, soap bottles, plastic bags etc. These plastics are carried by gyres ( circular ocean currents) that lead to the development of what is popularly known as the ‘garbage patch’, the largest of which is the Great Pacific Garbage patch.

This has implications for marine life and isolated islands as well as coastal areas. For example,

Sea turtle entangled in a fishing net
  • the Arctic and Antarctica have large volumes of plastic waste carried by ocean currents from populated areas. The island of Muffin, close to the Arctic pole, has been characterized by large volumes of plastic waste, even though it is located in the remotest part of the world.
  • Large volumes of plastic have also surfaced on the Tern Island close to Hawaii Island.
  • In March 2019, it was reported that a large whale was washed ashore and a postmortem showed that it had about 40kg of plastic in its belly.
  • Sea birds are also believed to have ‘eaten’ plastic materials or have gotten entangled in plastic materials.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Localized pollution and its impacts along shipping lanes

Localized pollution, such as oil spills can have direct or indirect impacts along shipping lanes. The increased flow of goods between countries resulting from global interactions through trade has wider environmental impacts. Ships can cause pollution in a number of ways:

  • oil leaks resulting from oil tanker accidents,
  • chemical pollution due to deliberate discharge of chemical waste into the seas,
  • noise pollution,
  • dumping of e-waste and the materials into the sea
  • the release of carbon monoxide and other chemicals into the atmosphere.

According to Nature, “shipping is the most energy-efficient way to move large volumes of cargo. Yet ships emit nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), carbon dioxide and particulate matter (PM) into the atmosphere. Worldwide, from 2007 to 2012, shipping accounted7 for 15% of annual NOx emissions from anthropogenic sources, 13% of SOx and 3% of CO2.”(Nature.com).

The overall effects of these forms of pollution are an increase in CO2 and Sulphur dioxide along shipping routes in many parts of the world, especially between Singapore and China. This has led to ocean acidification, that is an increase in the pH content of seawater, which has consequences on marine life in general.

Carbon footprints for global flows of food, goods and people

Carbon footprint is simply the total amount of greenhouse gases produced by individuals, organizations or countries, usually measured in terms of the amount of CO2 produced. The flow of goods, people and food around the world has implications on the global carbon footprint. This is important in the context of climate change, which is greatly contributing to global warming.

by Likhith

Food production and carbon footprints

According to Nature, a third of all greenhouse gases come from agriculture and added that…

from 2005, 2007 and 2008,… agricultural production provides the lion’s share of greenhouse-gas emissions from the food system, releasing up to 12,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year — up to 86% of all food-related anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions. Next is fertilizer manufacture, which releases up to 575 megatonnes, followed by refrigeration, which emits 490 megatonnes.

Food production leads to the release of greenhouses through:

  • the use of machinery for farming and food processing
  • the use of pesticides and fertilizers in farming
  • refrigeration of processed foods which requires energy to freeze or keep fresh
  • the storage of food products silos
  • packaging
  • distribution, using container trucks, ships or aeroplanes which produce carbon monoxide into the atmosphere
Photo by Vlad Cheu021ban on Pexels.com

One way to measure the environmental impact or the carbon footprint of food is the use of the food miles concept. Food miles is the distance food travels from the producer/farmer to the consumer/buyer. The longer the distance food travels the greater the food miles and therefore, its carbon footprint.

The carbon footprints of goods

Despite the fact that countries are making efforts to reduce their carbon footprint by cutting down on greenhouse gas production or through the introduction of sustainable methods of producing food such as the use of renewable energy sources, there is no doubt some of these countries are importing food from countries such as China and other emerging economies that are contributing greatly the number of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Mapping the world’s CO2 importers and exporters

The flow of people and carbon footprints

Globalization, resulting from the free movement of people, either as economic migrants or tourists, has resulted in an increase in global CO2 emissions. This mostly takes place through the movement of people using vehicles, trains, aeroplanes etc. These modes of transportation contribute greatly to the amount of GHGs in the atmosphere. It is estimated that by 202o, migrants into the UK will contribute about 125m tonnes of CO2.

The most comprehensive analysis of the tourism industry, published in Nature Climate Change, estimates that global tourism’s carbon footprint is likely to be about 8% of all emissions—more than double the previous estimate of 3% (Malik, et. al, 2018, Published in Nature).

Annual global tourism emissions, by sector. Source: Malik et al. Nature
Annual global tourism emissions, by country. Source: Malik et al. Nature

Environmental issues linked with the global shift of industry:

Polluting manufacturing industries

An important issue of concern to environmentalists is the relocation of polluting industries from HICs to LICs. This means that global interactions are causing environmental pollution resulting from the relocation of polluting industries to poor countries desiring to benefit from global interactions.

Examples of polluting industries

  • the location of US Union Carbide’s pesticide company in Bhopal, India. An explosion in the plant in 1984 released a plume of toxic gas which killed over 3000 people and hundreds of thousands had to flee for their lives.

Union Carbide Disaster

  • In China, the location of several western companies in the Shenzhen province is causing severe damage to the health of the people in the surrounding areas.
China’s pollution problem

According to Nelsen,

China’s problems with severe air pollution are back in the news. Last week, smog levels in China reached historic levels; as many as 32 cities were under “red alert,” the country’s most severe pollution warning. This followed two other red alerts in Beijing in December, which resulted in closures of schools and factories; half of the capital’s cars were banned from roads.

The persistence of China’s air pollution may puzzle some, given the country’s campaign to curb pollution in recent years. In 2013, a new English word, “airpocalypse,” emerged after severe smog in Beijing prompted the government to enact a massive national air pollution control plan amid public anxiety. “PM2.5,” a term for fine particulates, also entered the public lexicon as citizens monitored the daily reports of pollution levels.” (Fortune.com)

Over the years, the Chinese government has introduced legislation to tackle the problem of air pollution. This includes pledges to introduce the use of electric cars by end of 2025.

  • Maquiladora dev’t in Mexico. This is a collection of American polluting industries located in the town of Maquiladora, which is causing environmental damage in the environment. They are characterized by:
    • Usually, low-cost assembly plants that take advantage of relaxed environmental laws in Mexico.
    • Industries with high levels of toxic waste consist of the Maquiladora industries.
    • Located in places such as Cuidad Juarez, Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo.
    • They are important to Mexico because:
    • They are a source of labour for the economy (over 500,000 jobs)
    • They pay taxes to the government
    • They bring investment to the northern part of Mexico
    • However, they are a source of pollution (air and water)

Reasons why polluting industries relocate to LICs

  • High taxes on polluting industries in HICs
  • Strict environmental laws in HICs on pollution
  • High cost of labour in HICs, especially for manufacturing sector workers. i.e low labour cost in LICs attracts polluting industries as a cost-cutting measure to increase their profits. E.g in Mexico, a factory worker is paid 1/5 of an American factory worker’s wages.
  • Deliberate policies by the government of LICs to attract polluting industries e.g the creation of free trade zones or export processing zones for foreign companies to invest.
  • People in developing countries desire some of the waste products in order to extract valuable minerals such as gold, platinum, aluminium etc in order to make a living. In Ghana, Agbogloshie is the world’s largest e-waste dump for products originating from the United States and the European Union.

Food production systems for global agribusiness

Agribusiness refers to farming undertaken by large-scale business corporations that embrace the production, processing, distribution of agricultural products, and the manufacture of farm machinery, equipment and suppliers. More recently, it has become synonymous with large petrochemical industries involved in the research and production of high-yielding seed varieties and genetically modified seed varieties alongside the chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides that support them.

Agribusinesses are engaging in land grabs to practice mono-culture to produce food crops, either for export. Examples of agribusinesses include BASF, DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta etc. Some of the food-processing TNCs are Nestle, Unilever, Kraft foods, and Cargill.

  • The production of food on a large scale makes food available to areas that do not have sufficient food supply because they are able to export food.
  • They create employment opportunities.
  • They create revenue for the governments through the taxes that they pay.
  • Agribusiness also leads to the development of infrastructure in many developing countries
  • They eliminate middlemen who contribute in increase the price of agricultural produce.

Advantage of Agribusiness

Criticisms of Agribusiness

  • At the input stage, both the natural environment (fauna) and natural breeding selection (flora) are losing out to genetically modified seeds.
  • Large land grabs by TNCs deny local people the right to cultivate food for domestic consumption. For example, in the Amazonian forest in Brazil, indigenous farmers have been forced out of their native communities due to the impact of agribusiness activities.
  • Food is preserved, processed, package-branded and marketed such that food is becoming increasingly unrecognizable. For example, it is difficult to link processed meat products to the actual type of animal.
  • Large farming by TNCs can cause significant damage to the natural environment. This is because growing a single crop draws too many nutrients from the soil, leading to leaching.
  • The use of chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and chemical fertilizers is harmful to the environment. It is estimated that 430 million kilograms of pesticides are used each year in the USA. 10% of these chemicals reach the insects; the rest is released into the ground. The chemical build-up in the soil leads to algae growth which eventually causes an anaerobic environment, leading to eutrophication. The cost of cleaning up chemical pollution is expensive. E.g it now costs water companies in the UK between 135 -200 million pounds to remove pesticides and nitrates from drinking water.
  • Agribusinesses also lead to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from farming activities. Eg.10% of the UK’s greenhouse gases come from Methane (from animal manure) and nitrous Oxide (from fertilizer).
  • It leads to the removal of hedgerows, clearance of ponds and wetlands and destroys the habitat of wildlife and ecosystems, some of which may be fragile. E.g 25% of British hedgerows have been removed between 1949 and 1990 in Norfolk. The cutting down of trees eventually decreases the biodiversity of both plants and animals.

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