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March 17, 2022

Is sustainable development possible in the current global political economy?

GPE and sustainable dev

Source: Kristen Honig/USFS

Written By: Turhan Hizli

The consequences of climate change have become more obvious in recent decades, with global warming bringing many natural hazards, primarily sea level rises, wildfires etc. While we need to prevent its devastating impacts, can we mitigate climate change within the existing global political economy (GPE)? Can we accept that a significant reduction in emissions will inevitably require a change in our current consumption of goods and services? To sustain development without depleting our resources and damaging the environment encourages us to embrace a relatively new concept in the international development discipline- sustainable development, which according to the Brundtland Report, is a development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Report, 1987, p. 16). 

In the current era of global capitalism, some developed countries and global corporations disproportionately control key aspects of the GPE which is based on capitalism, globalisation, and free trade. GPE “deals with the interaction between political and economic forces. At its centre have always been questions of human welfare and how these might be related to state behaviour and corporate interests in different parts of the world” (Walzenbach, 2016, p. 1). It encapsulates predominantly capitalist institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, and since the 1990s capitalism’s ‘victory’ over socialism has led to wide-ranging support for the pro-market instruments ranging from deregulation, privatisation, and a limited state (Gilpin, 2001). A key question which currently faces us is whether sustainable development is possible within this incumbent GPE. This blog evaluates this question and concludes that sustainable development will necessitate substantial changes in the GPE and political institutions that bolster it.

Although developed countries are responsible for environmental degradation, as they consume 75 per cent of the world’s energy and contribute to 70 per cent of the ozone layer’s destruction, impact of climate change like rise in sea-level or habitat destruction threaten the livelihoods of most people in developing countries (Nixon, 2011). Developing countries in Southeast Asia are vulnerable to sea-level rise and subsequent floods whereas developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa suffer from droughts and crop failures (Ngcamu and Chan, 2020). There are also apparent inequalities in greenhouse gas emissions, for example, the US produces 20 per cent of emissions despite having 4 per cent of the world population (Roberts, 2019). Although the developed countries are responsible for triggering climate change, attempts by developing countries to stimulate development are criticised for causing global warming. For instance, their rural inhabitants are blamed for environmental degradation as they use industrialised fertilisers and pesticides even though Western chemical corporations promote their use (Banerjee, 2003). Also, slash-and-burn farmers in developing countries are held responsible for habitat destruction whereas timber corporations are inflicting the most damage (Banerjee, 2003). Furthermore, large corporations strive to spread scientific doubts to undermine efforts to tackle climate change. For instance, large corporations like ExxonMobil hires lobbyists, journalists and scientists who do not believe in climate change to justify inaction against climate change.

Large corporations also seek to consolidate the business-as-usual approach through green capitalism which advocates the market’s role in reducing emissions and decreasing their waste (Berghoff and Rome, 2017). Although there have been minor improvements in pollution control and emissions decline, corporations’ prime aim is profit maximisation and there is still a long way to minimise emissions and monitor businesses compliance. More importantly, corporations put pressure on developing country governments to provide some concessions in economic policies (Banerjee, 2001). For instance, in Mexico, pressure from corporations persuaded the government to grow meat for Western fast-food companies on the land that was previously used by indigenous communities to grow corn (Banerjee, 2003). Another example is Brazil’s Carajás region- the centre for iron ore and timber production, in which the Brazilian government invested US$60 billion mainly funded by loans. While this project had a low economic gain, its costs were significant, it unsettled the Eastern Amazon’s native people and caused deforestation while easing developed countries’ access to imported raw materials (Carvalho, 2001).  

Furthermore, there are contradictions in international institutions’ efforts to achieve sustainable development like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For instance, Goal 12, sustainable management and efficient resource, is incompatible with Goal 8; decent work and economic growth. Goal 12 is measured by material footprint and the consensus on yearly footprint is 50 billion tons, whereas the consensus on global economic growth in Goal 8annually is 3 per cent. This economic growth rate will increase material footprint from 87 billion tonnes (2015) to 167 billion tonnes (2030). However, reducing the material footprint to 50 billion tonnes would require six times increase in efficiency levels which is an unrealistic target. Also, Goal 13 advocates acting against climate change, and the Paris Agreement binds the SDGs to increases in average temperatures by a maximum of 2 degrees. However, with the business-as-usual approach in emission production, average temperatures are expected to rise by 4.2 degrees. To avoid global warming of more than 2 degrees, substantial decreases in CO2 emissions of around a yearly 4 per cent decline are needed. Assuming that the economic growth should be 3 per cent annually (Goal 8), and the reductions in emissions need to be 4 per cent, this would require 7.29 per cent decarbonisation annually, which means decarbonisation should happen six times faster than the historical levels which shows another contradiction between Goal 13 and Goal 8 (Hickel, 2019).

Decreasing emissions and resource consumption but also maintaining economic growth are difficult and not possible in the current GPE (Hickel, 2018).  Therefore, a considerable change in the GPE and democratic reforms in international institutions that would empower the Global South are essential. Furthermore, their debts should be cancelled, and they should receive financial assistance to achieve economic development. Developed countries should accept responsibility and implement de-growth strategies to achieve sustainable development. Deconstructing the current GPE is a bitter prescription, but the only way that humanity can survive.

Author’s Bio

Turhan Hizli is a final year Politics and International Studies student at the University of Warwick. His areas of interest include international development, geopolitics, de facto states and state-building, the politics of Cyprus and Turkey.

August 17, 2021

A Climate Reality Check, on Social Collapse and Public Knowledge

‘Global Food Prices are Already Higher than for Most of Modern History’

Written by Alastair Smith

The Theory of Civilisational Collapse

Extinction and Rebellion, the global Climate Emergency campaign network, believe that Global Heating and associated Climate Breakdown has already locked in a likely “Social Collapse” (Reed 2020; Hallam 2019). To understand the potential for this, leading speakers such as Rodger Hallam argue, look at the failed state of Somalia (2019).

Potential pathways for such an unravelling of so-called “civilisation” include the collapse of asset prices for coastal property and the “fiscal crisis of the state”: the scenario in which ecologically catalysed recession is so deep, that the legitimacy of government evaporates as its capacity to fund welfare amid deep inequality is neutralised, and the poor cannot afford food (Hallam 2019). Based on their academic research and scholarship, Rupert Reed, Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, and Rodger Hallam, previously a researcher at King’s Collage London, also outline that we know exactly what happens to social stability when poor people lack food: they understandably secure their livelihoods in any way they can (Hallam 2019).

The ultimate end, Hallam (2019) suggests in talks given across the UK, is war. This might be across borders as hungry migrants move on scales the world has never seen (MPI 2020); it might be through internal conflict as citizens riot for food, facing little resistance where a police force and military have gone unpaid for long enough. If there is one robust law of social science, it is the one promulgated decades ago: revolutions happen when the masses go hungry (Risbridger 2018).

The Limits of Public Knowledge

For many, the sort of dystopian or apocalyptic visioning promoted by Extinction and Rebellion is inappropriate. Critiques refer to the fallacy of such a Malthusian’esk and neo-Malthusian theory that predicts significant social fallout when food demand outstrips food production. Commentators who prefer to celebrate the gains of human development, highlight that humanity has always triumphed in difficult times: “adversity is the mother of invention”, or so goes the often used, yet little reflected on saying of convenience.

Indeed, this is a privileged defence given that:

“The [UN’s] latest edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World…estimates that almost 690 million people went hungry in 2019 - up by 10 million from 2018, and by nearly 60 million in five years. High costs and low affordability also mean billions cannot eat healthily or nutritiously”(FAO 2020).

Not only has the frequency of malnutrition grown in recent years, much of the most intensive nutritional deprivation is also inextricably interconnected with violent conflict (GAIN 2020). The causation between food availability and violence is of course complex, but only those with the fortune not to experience this nexus for themselves have the privilege to dismiss its relevance out of hand.

Moreover, the vast majority of the world has failed to notice a dual indictment of the current nature of human “progress through innovation”: that illustrated by the role of information, knowledge and education, a much-praised characteristic of democratic organisation and widely hailed as part of the “white” Northern world’s defence against social collapse.

Empirical Realities of Food Markets in 2021

As part of my scholarship for research-led teaching on food, security, sovereignty and sustainability, I have paid constant attention to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) regular reports on crop production, consumption and stocks, as well as their individual and collective prices (FAO various). In classes, I have elicited students’ current knowledge of food dynamics before challenging them with the more accurate realties. As part of this exercise, those learners thinking of themselves as well-informed find most headlines and graphical representations rather unsurprising.

To take a few examples of the insights we all might find familiar:

  • “As more go hungry and malnutrition persists, achieving Zero Hunger by 2030 in doubt, UN report warns” (FAO 2020).
  • “Prices are at the highest since 2014, risking faster inflation” (Bloomberg, May 2021).
  • “Global food prices rise for 10th month in a row (April ReliefWeb 2021)”.
  • “Most food commodity prices are gaining momentum as end-2020 approaches” (World Bank 2020).

Food Price blog chart 1

Since I started writing this blog, some analysis has started to become more pertinent, with the more accurate soundbites that:

  • “UN: Cost of food rises at fastest pace in over a decade” (BBC 2021)
  • “Global food prices post biggest jump in decade” (Financial Times 2021)
  • “Global Food Prices Keep Rising…The May figure is the highest of any month in almost ten years”.

Sadly, while more precise than previous accounts, this messaging still misses the simple statistical observation that obliterates the relevance of this coverage. Reviewing the “real” price of food over time – expressed as an index relative to a base year, rather than the nominal value in currency, which makes comparison harder due to inflation – the only relevant way to capture today’s status of global food prices is to say that:

‘It is on average harder to buy food today in 2021, than it has been since 2012, and in fact for most of the noughties, the entire decade of the 1990s, andthe 1980s; mostof the 1970s, and every year of the 1960s! Food is more expensive today than it has been for most of the modern recorded history’.

Even though the FAO has not coined this summary, its own graphic representations show the gravity of our current reality. While the FAO’s version can be seen at the bottom of their recent webpage (2021), below is my most recent reproduction, as I share with my students. Here the graph shows the most recent 2021price index calculation in blue, thus allowing easy visual comparison with the historical trend, shown in grey.

Food Price blog chart 2

Here we see that apart from the food price crisis of 2012, and the oil price crisis of the 1970s, today’s real costs of buying food are higher than almost the entire period since records began in 1961. This also means that the real price is also now higher than in 2010, when food shortages and interrelated price crisis gave rise to what the European media labelled as the “Arab Spring”, in which multiple North African governments were overthrown (Zurayk 2011).

Beyond this, knowledge creators and distributors have been fixated on COVID as the reason for recent price increases. This is again as well illustrated by a Google search for information, which returns summaries such as:

“Global food commodity prices in a post-COVID world” (World Bank 2020)

“The prices of raw materials that go into morning staples have surged since the start of the pandemic” (FT May 2021).

It is certainly true that COVID has disrupted global food supply (Loborde et al 2020), however, this framing disregards a much more prominent theme, identified by FAO crop reports that provide explanations about the dynamics of supply and demand. For the most part, these regular briefings are written in fairly technically and arguably obscurantist language: here you’ll find expressions that attribute price rises to “increasingly tight global supply with lower-than-earlier-expected production and stock estimates…”.

However, when you move past these broad expressions you find others that explain the problems of food production: “Concerns over dryness in South America” (FAO 2021), “owing to poor weather conditions that curtailed yields” (2021a), “continued dry weather has partially curbed prospects, and field reports confirm inferior crop conditions compared to the average” (2021a). Put simply, one of the most prominent themes in FAO analysis has been the unpredictability of weather and the manifest inability of technology to full mitigate for this.

It is of course important not to be alarmist. This analysis is not sufficient to conclude that unpredicted weather results from climate breakdown, which is already undermining our collective ability to produce enough food. It is true that in recent years declining supply of some key commodities - such as cereals that provide nutrition for c.50% of the human species – has been outstripped by growing demand, therefore literally eating into global buffer stocks. However, buffer stocks do exist for this very purpose and there will always be periods of over demand: the situation remains stable because supply is sufficient to meet needs over the longer term.

What this empirical reality does clearly demonstrate however, is that when weather is hard to predict, for example where long-term climate patterns change, and continue to change as is increasingly predicted by leaked updated IPCC consensus science (Harvey 2021), producing enough food to feed a growing population will be increasingly challenging.

In summary, five overall conclusions emerge:

  1. It is indisputably now harder to buy food in 2021, than it has been for most of modern history, and this should be reflected in headlines and sound bites. Moreover, malnutrition is growing not declining, and many of the most severe situations are interlinked with violent conflict. This is a damming indictment of the much-celebrated human potential.
  2. Climate breakdown will continue for decades irrespective of any actions taken now or soon, and there is evidenced risk to our food systems and supply will be compromised in the future. It is likely that buffer stocks will be consumed, and prices will rise, therefore excluding more and more of the world’s poorest people, creating a context for local and international social instability (FAO 2020).
  3. The end of “civilisation”, if and when it comes, very likely involves food riots and conflicts of a significant magnitude; a situation potentially catalysed by global pandemic (Bostrom & Cirkovic 2011). We will only know which crisis will be the last when it’s far too late to act.
  4. Minimising further climate breakdown is an essential risk management strategy to avoid risks to our food system, and everyone has the responsibility to pressure for radical changes by those meeting at the Conference of the Paris (COP) 26 event in Glasgow this year.
  5. Finally, we like to think we know about the Climate Emergency and its impact on our lives. However, the institutions we trust to provide appropriate information do not always tell us the whole story. Look past the headlines and the received opinion: your ability to see social collapse before it arrives might well depend on it.

Author Bio:

Alastair Smith is a Senior Teaching Fellow, in Global Sustainable Development, University of Warwick and Academic Lead for the Food Global Research Priority.

June 01, 2020

Global Insights – COVID–19: Climate Change and Energy

Global Insights Climate

Authors: Ann Fitz-Gerald, Simon Dalby, Selam Kidane Abebe, Caroline Kuzemko, Jatin Nathwani, Malini Ranganathan

Editors: Briony Jones and Maeve Moynihan

This post is part of a larger collection covering the Global Insights webinar series, hosted jointly by Balsillie School of International Affairs (Canada), the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick (UK), the Institute for Strategic Affairs (Ethiopia), American University’s School of International Service (USA), and Konstanz University (Germany). Global Insights webinars take place every Thursday at 16:00h (BST). You can access a recording of this week’s webinar here.

Panellists: Ann Fitz-Gerald (Moderator – BSIA), Simon Dalby (Wilfrid Laurier University, BSIA), Selam Kidane Abebe (University of Reading), Caroline Kuzemko (University of Warwick), Jatin Nathwani (University of Waterloo, BSIA), Malini Ranganathan (American University)

As journalists around the world speak of a ‘dual-crisis,’ this Global Insights panel invited listeners to reflect on the COVID-19 crisis and the climate crisis. While the COVID-19 pandemic presents challenges for climate change, there are a number of promising opportunities to rebuild our societies for a more sustainable future.

How does the COVID-19 crisis intersect with climate change, certainly in the short to medium term?

The climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic very accurately reflect our deeply interconnected and rapidly globalizing world. The two crises intersect not only with one another, but with the stark inequalities that have come to define our world as well. Society has failed to appropriately prepare, and has been slow to respond to, both the pandemic and severe climactic events. Given this lack of preparation and response, those who are already at the margins of society are pushed further away. In this way, the pandemic is not only a double-crisis, but a triple-crisis at the intersection of health, climate change, and inequality. In the United States, the racial geographies of both the pandemic and of environmental harm are alarmingly similar. For example, in Chicago 30% of the population is African-American, yet people of color account for 50% of coronavirus deaths. Such deaths are concentrated in the Southwest part of the city, where coal plants and steel smelters have driven a rise in asthma and lung disease, making residents, most of whom are African-American, particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. The intersection of these crises demonstrates that people experience multiple threats simultaneously. As such, innovative, comprehensive, and multilateral responses are necessary.

Before COVID-19, how much progress, if any, did we have with this agenda?

Although pre-pandemic society may feel distant, that the clean energy agenda had made noticeable progress prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. Before the outbreak of coronavirus, many companies had already started to recognize the liabilities surrounding fossil fuels, and noticed that they have the opportunity to shift to renewable energy. Such changes present a positive narrative of the clean energy agenda, suggesting that the pandemic could provide a test-commitment for sustainable change. Sustainable energy could provide dual-pronged benefits of improved efficiency and reduced poverty. However, our societies continue to be built on fossil fuels. In 2020, 85% of global energy continues to come from fossil fuels, the same share that they occupied in 1990. Furthermore, at a multilateral level, international treaties on climate change have not necessarily sparked extraordinary change at a national level, as national politics and economic situations govern such decisions.

In light of COVID-19, what does this mean for the Green New Deal, Environmental and Health Justice, and the postponement of multilateral conversations?

This is a historic opportunity to transition to a low-carbon energy future through a ‘Green New Deal’ and restructure our economies for a sustainable future. As governments around the world develop stimulus packages and economic recovery plans, such plans must turn to renewables and sustainable change. There is a very good case to do so, as such investment can have strong returns in terms of jobs and economic growth. At a time when economies are shrinking and unemployment is rising quickly, renewable energy could provide not only a climate-friendly society, but new job opportunities. These opportunities can only be taken if stimulus packages include re-skilling opportunities for those leaving the fossil fuel industry. However, the postponement of multilateral discussions on climate change, such as the cancellation of COP26 in Glasgow for example, serves as a concerning challenge with respect to international treaties on climate change and the implementation of the Paris Agreement in 2021.

Are there any opportunities which COVID-19 throws up for climate change and the Cleaner Energy Agenda?

COVID-19 provides crucial and interesting opportunities for a shift to renewable energy, environmental justice, and health justice. Governments are now focused on how best to respond to and recover from the pandemic and have the unique opportunity to incorporate sustainable solutions into these plans. While the lockdown measures have allowed for cleaner air in places like New Delhi ecological regeneration in the natural world, we must not allow such imagery to distract from issues of environmental and health justice, such as the suffering of migrant laborers under India’s lockdown, many of whom were forced to return to their villages on account of the lack of social safety nets in cities. Once back in rural areas, however, they continue to face climate and environmental distress.

The COVID-19 crisis provides a unique opportunity to address both. The crisis allows societies to shift our gaze from individuals who have pre-existing conditions to societies that pre-dispose those particular groups to such conditions due to environmental factors, such as the case in Chicago above.

How do societies move forward during this liminal moment?

Whereas governmental financial support for the climate crisis was hard to come by, there is suddenly an incredible amount of capital available in the form of stimulus packages. Such funds can be used effectively to develop greener and more just societies that no longer rely on fossil fuels. However, if such stimulus monies are distributed to fossil fuel companies, as may happen in the United States for example, future consequences could be dire. Demand for coal, oil, and gas has declined, however such demand has not fallen for renewable energy, so it provides a greater share for energy than it did previously. Emissions have fallen 5% in the first quarter of 2020 when compared to 2019. While emissions may continue to decline by almost 8% as they did during the financial crisis of 2008, they may indeed return to normal as societies emerge from confinement stages of pandemic management. In order to make a more permanent shift, subsidies for fossil fuel companies must be removed and societies must take the social cost of carbon into account. Societies must continue to restructure social practices to continue emissions reduction for many years to come. For example, societies need to think systematically about a return to city-planning, transportation, and energy-efficiency at home and in the workplace. As governments move to address the pandemic nationally and multilaterally, the climate crisis must not be forgotten, and the situation in developing countries must be included in the recovery process.

Key Conclusions: Six pieces of advice for policy-makers

1. Develop legally mandated and politically consistent exits for low carbon societies.

2. Invest stimulus funding in renewable energy not fossil-fuels as we rebuild our economies.

3. Consider the collective multilateral global response as we build individual national responses.

4. Valorize and strengthen safety nets for essential workers in a greener economy, and think about health, environmental, and social justice together.

5. Create a just transition to greener economies by reskilling fossil fuel workers and phase out old systems appropriately.


The Warwick Interdisciplinary Research Centre for International Development addresses urgent problems of inequality and social, political and economic change on a global level.

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