Globalisation’s dark side: how shoppers consume threatened species

When you buy imported products, are you buying dead endangered species as well? Mark Hudson

The tide of globalisation drives development, providing jobs and much needed dollars. But development and trade consumes local biodiversity, much of it in the iconic biodiversity hotspots of tropical countries. Shoppers in developed countries purchase the goods developing countries produce, thus consuming biodiversity assets from faraway places. Unsurprisingly, North America, Japan and the EU reap the most benefits of biodiversity consumption, reflecting previous eras of exploration and colonisation.

This is the core message of a letter released in the journal Nature today by the ISA team led by Professor Manfred Lenzen at the Physics Department at Sydney University. The work is the culmination of a 10-year task which turned national environmental accounting into a global reality by joining every production chain in every economy worldwide: five billion production chains in all. (If you would like to see each country’s biodiversity account, use the interactive map here.)

The globe is now undergoing its sixth major extinction event. The level of species loss is at one hundred to one thousand times the background levels (before industrialisation). This time, extinction is driven by human impact and economic commerce rather than ice ages and meteors. The globe has moved from the relatively benign Holocene era, where humans and agriculture developed, into the Anthropocene, the human driven epoch.

How western consumption threatens species overseas

Globalised production chains challenge, on average, one-third of threatened animal species in developing countries. In some countries, such as Papua New Guinea and Madagascar, trade drives nearly two-thirds of species threats.

More affluent developed countries receive the largess of this trade in an unequal exchange where consumers seldom pay the full cost for habitat cleared and species threatened. While trade is implicated, domestic activities such as urban expansion, domestic food production and pollution are responsible for the remaining threatened species, so response is required in the domestic and traded parts of each economy.

Some species are directly threatened by coffee growing. LWY/Flickr

Half of the threatened species implicated in Papua New Guinea’s exports are destined for Japan. These are mostly timber products that are partly machined in Indonesia and Malaysia and agricultural products that undergo intermediate food processing in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, and Thailand.

Coffee, cocoa, palm oil, and coconut growing in Papua New Guinea are linked to nine critically endangered species including the Northern glider Petaurus abidi, the Black-spotted Cuscus Spilocuscus rufoniger, and the Eastern Long-beaked Echidna Zaglossus bartoni.

Passing on these insights to the Chicago School of Economics, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation would result in a decidedly short conversation, so the strategy of how to proceed is critical. The international system of national accounts segments economic structures into producers, traders and consumers. Each of these segments needs to do its bit.

What we must do to preserve species

Producers should enforce existing laws around resource extraction and national parks and increase conservation efforts in known biodiversity hotspots. Multinational companies should enforce careful production systems both at home and abroad and not use lax environmental monitoring as a source of competitive advantage.

World regions should move to harmonise their environmental legislation so neighbouring countries do not race to the bottom, exchanging long term biodiversity resources for short term monetary gain in a “here today gone tomorrow” concept of progress.

The traders in some forestry and fishing production chains have shown the way in supply chain certification that allows access to developed world markets. Some certification is often more honoured in the breach rather than the observance, but steady maturation of certification should be assumed as product ranges expand from “dolphin-friendly tuna” and “rainforest-free photocopy paper”.

That leaves us, the consumers. When the CEOs of our big supermarket chains offer us cheaper and cheaper food, we should treat them with the derision they deserve and ask them “who actually pays?”.

These are no “back of the envelope” calculations. kirinonakame/Flickr

It is good common sense to purchase food and consumables that are mostly made in the domestic economy, providing jobs for us and our children and open to stringent environmental overview. Who needs Californian fresh oranges and Brazilian orange juice when local growers can’t sell their crop because price trumps all?

This study promises global certification schemes that are consistent. And where a country has a poor performance, individual niche producers can still get certification if they can show they’re avoiding their country’s threatening processes. We should require products to carry loud certification labels and harangue our governments, firms and institutions to procure wisely. There is no such thing as cheap photocopy paper and farmed prawns from South East Asia. Even the morning latte requires a deeper inquisition than we give it as the morning heart starter.

Bringing every economy to account

The trade economist and the policy pointy head might very well ask whether science knows what it is talking about. But down in the basement of the Physics Department a supercomputer takes three weeks running hot, connecting consumers to over 10,000 production sectors in 187 countries through five billion production chains. Every national economic and environmental account sits in there having its inconsistencies and downright lies elucidated. The Eora global database (available to the public in July) that underpins this study promises a step change in supply chain transparency that, to date, has relied on painstaking product-by-product examination.

This paper deals with the biodiversity assets just for the animal kingdom; the plant kingdom awaits us. As well as biodiversity there is the full financial system of national accounts, energy, greenhouse emissions, water, ecological footprints and soon, global employment. This will allow a complete economic, social and environmental account for each country and each industry in each country. There are no dark cupboards in which to hide.

Globalised trade and economic development exacts a fearsome burden on biodiversity and the web of life. Only the foolhardy would expect that our results will be welcomed with the delight a cancer cure might bring. In reality, we hardly needed ten years of work and a supercomputer to tell us what we already knew, that humankind is consuming the earth and that core global institutions facilitate this. But numbers can move mountains: just reflect what the Dow Jones does to us all.

Down in the laboratory we remain eternal optimists. There is much to be gain from reining in globalised trade. Nation states might start to live within their means, employ their own citizens and embrace their own environmental assets. Once there was an expanding ozone hole, then there was a Montreal Protocol on CFCs and now we see a slow repair. Twenty years ago there was the suggestion of a greenhouse effect and now Australia nearly has a carbon tax. Stranger things can happen.