As satellites from NASA zipped over the planet Earth yesterday, they saw what they have seen every day for months: fires, hundreds of them, tearing through virgin rainforest and other vital ecosystems.
Many of the blazes, which come at the tail end of a devastating fire season, are believed to have been set by farmers eager to clear land and sate the booming global demand for beef and soybeans.
A new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, jointly produced with the International Resource Panel, says that type of unbridled international trade is having a damaging effect not only on rainforests but the entire planet. The report, which called for a raft of new Earth-friendly trade rules, found that the extraction of natural resources could spark water shortages, drive animals to extinction and accelerate climate change – all of which would be ruinous to the global economy.
“The economic fallout of COVID-19 is just an overture to what we would see if the Earth’s natural systems break down. We have to make sure that our global trade policies protect the environment not only for the sake of our planet but also for the long-term health of our economies,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.
The environmental toll
The new report, titled the Sustainable Trade in Resources, was unveiled Monday by UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen at a meeting of the World Trade Organization.
It found that in 2017, 35 billion tonnes of material resources, from oil to iron to potatoes, were extracted from the earth specifically for the purposes of trade. While that helped create millions of jobs, especially in poor communities, the report found it had a profound effect of the planet. Resource extraction was responsible for 90 per cent of species loss, 90 per cent of water stress and 50 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.
With the demand for natural resources set to double by 2060, the report called on policy makers to embrace what is known as a “circular” economic model. That would see businesses use fewer resources, recycle more and extend the life of their products. It would also put an onus on consumers to buy less, save energy and repair things that are broken instead of throwing them away.
The benefits of going green
Those changes could pay big dividends for the planet, the report found. By conserving resources, humanity could slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 90 per cent.
While the circular model could have “economic implications” for countries that depend on natural resources, it would give rise to new industries devoted to recycling and repair. Overall, the report predicts, a greener economic model would boost growth by 8 per cent by 2060.
“There’s this idea out there that we have to log, mine, and drill our way to prosperity,” said Inger Andersen. “But that’s not true. By embracing circularity and re-using materials we can still drive economic growth while protecting the planet for future generations.”
Some countries, both in the developed and developing world, have embraced the concept of a circular economy. But the report said international trade agreements can play an important role in making those systems more common. It called on the World Trade Organization, which has 164 member countries, to take the environment into consideration when setting regulations. It also recommended that regional trade pacts promote investments in planet-friendly industries, eliminate “harmful” subsidies, like those for fossil fuels, and avoid undercutting global environmental accords.
“Re-orienting the global economy isn’t an easy job,” said Inger Andersen. There are a lot of vested interests we have to contend with. But with the Earth’s population expected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050, we need to find ways to relieve the pressure on the planet.”