World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Globalization and climate change

01 January 2002

by David G. Hallman

There are many environmental impacts of economic globalization: transnational corporations moving operations to developing countries to avoid the stricter environmental regulations of their home country; free trade agreements which restrict the capacity of national governments to adopt environmental legislation; destruction of southern rainforests to provide exotic timber for northern consumers and to create pasture land for beef for northern hamburgers. The issue of climate change is one that is particularly intriguing because it encompasses so many ecological, social, economic, political and ethical aspects. Climate change has been the focus of a WCC programme for almost ten years.1

By definition, climate change is a global issue. The composition of the atmosphere which surrounds the planet is altering as a result of the emissions of tonnes of polluting gases (called greenhouse gases - GHGs) from industry, transportation, agriculture and consumer practices. With this thickening blanket of gases, the atmosphere is gradually warming. The entire planet will be affected by the climatic changes and impacts which are predicted e.g. increased droughts and floods, rising sea-levels, more extreme temperatures, etc.

The willingness of countries around the world to cooperate in the negotiation of treaties to address this global problem is a positive example of globalization - or perhaps this is better referred to as innternationalism". Intensive discussions over an 18-month period before the 1992 Rio Earth Summit led to the adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Negotiations have continued subsequently to develop another agreement for more specific emission reduction targets for industrialised countries. Because these negotiations have been going so slowly, the WCC initiated a petition campaign through the churches in industrialised nations to raise the level of public support for action.

Though climate change is a global problem, people are not all equally responsible for causing it. The industrialised nations, representing less than 20% of the world's population, account for nearly 90% of annual GHG emissions over the last century, largely through the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas). When they signed the UN Climate Change Convention at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, industrialised countries committed themselves to stabilising their emission levels by the year 2000. Except for a few countries such as Germany and the UK, most of them will not meet this target - current projections are for a continuous increase well into the next century.

Emission levels from countries of the economic South are rising rapidly as they pursue development to meet the basic needs of their people. This places even greater responsibility on industrialised nations to work toward drastic reductions in their emissions in order for the global total to fall.

This points to one of the basic ethical dimensions of the climate change issue in the context of the global community. We must make a distinction between the ‘luxury emissions of the rich' and the ‘survival emissions of the poor'. The energy-intensive consumer lifestyles of many people in industrialised countries (and elites in developing nations) are responsible for disturbing the atmospheric balance and threatening the world with major climatic disruption. Northern consumption-oriented lifestyles and economies cannot be considered to carry the same ethical priority as Southern development strategies to provide food, water, electricity, health care, education, etc.

What are the alternatives?

Many of the solutions to this global problem lie at the level of regional, national and local decision-making.

In industrialised countries, there are a wide range of steps which could be taken to increase conservation and energy efficiency and thereby dramatically reduce the amount of fossil fuels used. Many technologies already exist for more efficient electrical lighting, appliances, automobiles and further technological development could occur if adequate resources were directed. Alternative, renewable energy sources are becoming more economically viable - these alternatives would already be much more economical if the hidden environmental costs of current energy sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear power were calculated into their actual cost. Urban planning designs have been developed that would reorient community living so that people were less dependent on having to use their individual automobile and public transportation would be more attractive, efficient and economical.

In the WCC's work on climate change, we have come to the conclusion that this kind of efficiency revolution is a necessary part of the long-term solution but it will not be enough. Within industrialised societies, there also needs to be a rediscovery of the notion of sufficiency. What is adequate for a good quality of life? We perceive a growing awareness that an ever increasing level of material consumption is no longer adding to an improved quality of life. Indeed, there are indications that there is an inverse ratio as families need to work ever more strenuously to afford the material goods advertised to them as requirements for the good life. This treadmill leaves them with an ever-diminishing sense of emotional and spiritual satisfaction through the loss of time to nurture their relationships with God, their families, the community and the natural world around them.

National governments, municipal councils, industries, families and individuals in industrialised countries could make conscious choices to move in these directions of greater efficiency and acceptance of limits of sufficiency which would result in significant reductions in energy use and hence lower GHG emission levels. Some are making such choices but progress is slow as evidenced by the fact that most Northern countries will not meet their commitment to stabilise emission levels by the year 2000.

What progress has been made?

In the light of the growing scientific consensus about the seriousness of this global threat, it is very disturbing that progress toward limiting emission levels should be so slow in industrialised countries. In our analysis, we perceive a number of factors. There is an element of paralysis that individuals and governments experience faced with the magnitude of the problem. But there are also powerful economic forces feeding that paralysis. Commercial interests that would be hurt by a reduction in the use of fossil fuels have mounted major campaigns in western countries to convince the public and governments that taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would wreck havoc with the economy and lead to significant job loss.

There are, however, an increasing number of credible studies that confirm that improvements in energy efficiency would yield ecological, social and economic benefits, including increased employment opportunities. There are also industries which could benefit from such changes and they are becoming more active in the climate change debate.

Action to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases could and should begin with steps taken by governments, industries and individuals in industrialised nations. But there are dynamics that are an intrinsic part of economic globalization which must also be addressed. These include the dramatic increase in the transportation of goods around the world, the potential of trade agreements such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) to limit the capacity of countries to develop domestic environmental regulations, and the proposal for bilateral climate change projects between industrialised and developing countries.

The transport factor
The increase in transportation of goods around the world is producing significant greenhouse gas emissions and is propelled by a number of factors. With the basically free flow of capital and investment but the relative stability of labour, transnational corporations have found it economical to have different manufacturing plants specialise in certain parts and then transport them to another location for assembly. The globalization of automobile manufacturing is a good example. Another reason for more transportation of goods is the contemporary expectation of consumers in industrialised countries to be able to have access to a wide variety of fresh produce (e.g. vegetables, fruit) and flowers all year round.

Trade agreements
The capacity of governments to adopt environmental legislation and regulations aimed at a range of problems including the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may be compromised under new trade agreements such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) currently being negotiated among OECD countries and other agreements within the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Standards developed by governments for various environmental purposes such as demanding increased energy efficiency from electrical products might be deemed as "barriers to trade". There may even be pressure for countries to eliminate current legislation. Bilateral projects
Under the UN climate change negotiations, a plan has been developed to facilitate bilateral projects between industrialised and developing countries to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases in the South and increase ‘carbon sinks', such as forests, which can absorb carbon dioxide. On the surface, the plan sounds most commendable. Industrialised nations would assist developing countries modernise various aspects of the manufacturing and resource sectors in order to make them more energy-efficient and thus produce fewer emissions. In return, the industrialised countries would be able to count the reduced emissions in the developing country as part of their own required emission reduction target.

The plan, referred to as "actions implemented jointly" (AIJ), has been the subject of great controversy. Developing countries and environmental organisations have raised a number of concerns. There is the possibility that industrialised nations may be less inclined to reduce their own emissions if they can get credit for reductions in developing countries where the costs of such action would be cheaper. Secondly, when it comes time under climate change treaties for developing countries to have to meet emission reduction targets, they could suffer financially because the cheaper options for emission reduction would have already been taken by the AIJ projects, leaving the developing countries with only much more expensive options.

The climate change issue illustrates how inter-related the world is both in terms of the causes of the problem and the options for addressing it.

Dr David G. Hallman is programme officer on energy & environment for the United Church of Canada and doordinator of the Climate Change Programme for the World Council of Churches. He is author and editor of several environmental books, including Ecotheology: Voices from South and North, WCC/Orbis, 1994.


1. The WCC has produced a number of resources on climate change, including a 1994 study document, Accelerated Climate Change - Sign of Peril, Test of Faith, the April 1997 issue of The Ecumenical Review, which contains papers from a WCC consultation, and two new study documents which will be available as of January 1998, Climate Change and the Quest for Sustainable Societies - Reflections on a WCC Study Project, and Prospects for Sustainable Mobility.