Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Nov 15, 2021
The developed world needs to take more responsibility and address negative spillovers caused by their actions.
Sustainable development: Shared problems need shared solutions The SDG framework falls short of adequately accounting for transnational spillovers—how country action impact other countries. An overemphasis on domestic progress towards SDG targets misses important transnational dynamics. For example, air quality in one country may improve because it is offset by declines in quality elsewhere. Similarly, forest cover may increase in one country at the expense of increased deforestation abroad. This brief elaborates on these two examples to illustrate why we need to better understand and account for transnational spillovers. The first example is air pollution. Some attention has been given to cross-border flows of air pollution, i.e., the movement of air pollution across borders. However, recently, there have also been efforts to link consumption patterns and air pollution transnationally. The highly fragmented and international nature of production means that air pollution resulting from goods consumed in one place is often emitted elsewhere. Recent research suggests that those effects are significant and can be attributed to millions of pollution-related deaths each year.
Consumption patterns in the world’s high-income countries are directly linked to pollution-related deaths in lower-income countries< style="font-family: Calibri, sans-serif">.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths each year; 3.8 million of  those deaths are related to indoor air pollution—caused by exposure to a combination of cooking fuels, and toxic building materials, and home furnishings, pesticides, and herbicides. The remainder of those deaths are attributed to ambient or outdoor air pollution, caused by human activities, including power generation, transportation, agriculture, and industry. Exposure to air pollution causes numerous health effects, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and acute respiratory infections. 90 percent of air pollution deaths are in low- and middle-income countries. Countries have a vital role in addressing domestic air pollution, but air pollution and subsequently air pollution-related health impacts are not only driven by domestic actions. Consumption patterns in the world’s high-income countries are directly linked to pollution-related deaths in lower-income countries. Consumption in G-20 countries in 2010, for example, led to 1.9 million premature deaths globally due to air pollution alone. In addition, researchers traced bilateral trade and found that consumption in the United States (US) is linked to the premature deaths of 39 thousand people in China, 13 thousand people in India, 4 thousand people in Mexico, and 2 thousand people in Russia annually due to air pollution. Other studies mirror these findings; a 2017 study, for example, linked consumption in the US and Western Europe to more than 100,000 deaths in China. The same study found that 22 percent of premature deaths related to air pollution globally can be credited to producing goods and services for consumption in another country. The US and other high-income countries have mostly seen improved air quality at home in recent decades, but this is partly due to their exporting of the dirtiest steps in the production process of their goods and services elsewhere. Unfortunately, it was not until relatively recently that the extent of those impacts was quantified. Achieving SDG 3—ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing for all at all ages—will require changes in consumption patterns in higher-income countries, as much as it will require countries to address domestic pollution.
The US and other high-income countries have mostly seen improved air quality at home in recent decades, but this is partly due to their exporting of the dirtiest steps in the production process of their goods and services elsewhere< style="font-family: Calibri, sans-serif">.
The second example is deforestation. The world's forests are vital for sustaining biodiversity, combatting climate change, and broadly supporting human life. However, since 1990, 420 million hectares of forest area have been lost. Notably, while domestic measures are needed to safeguard forests, international dynamics are also important. High consumption levels in some parts of the world are sustained through imports from others, where there may be fewer safeguards to protect forest integrity. Most high-income countries, on average, are net-importers of forest products. These countries practice forest conservation at home and meet consumption demand by importing from other countries. Between 2001 and 2015, the G7 countries, India, and China increased domestic forest coverage while contributing significantly to deforestation elsewhere. 90 percent of the deforestation caused by the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, France, and Italy occurred outside their borders. A 2019 study found that an increasing share of deforestation, nearly 26 percent in the tropics and sub-tropics, was driven by international demand. Nearly 90 percent of that demand was from countries that have decreasing rates of deforestation, indicating again improved forest cover and protection in many countries is achieved by transferring deforestation to others World leaders from more than 100 countries recently signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use at the COP26 meetings in Glasgow. The commitment is to halt deforestation and degradation by 2030. However, these commitments will have to be backed by action and finance, and by internationally coordinated efforts. Achievements towards SDG 15—protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss—will require countries to truly account for and address their global footprints rather than just limiting deforestation at home. Assessing progress towards sustainable development at the domestic level alone conceals critical international dynamics. The two cases presented here are only two amongst many examples of how countries are improving sustainable development domestically while negatively impacting other countries. A framework that better accounts for the global footprints of countries is needed. Such a framework would help to attribute negative spillovers to countries causing them, and may lead to new approaches to making sustainable development more equitable and more effective.
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