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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.


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