Globalization’s Carbon Bootprint


Anyone interested in big picture solutions to climate change must eventually confront the inconvenient truth that one of the major forces stoking the greenhouse is globalization. The infrastructure of global trade — ships, trains, cars, trucks, and aircraft — all produce global warming gasses.

Driven by globalization, transportation’s appetite for oil has increased dramatically since 1973. Transportation now consumes nearly 60 percent of the world’s oil, and demand is anticipated to grow 2.5 percent annually — faster than any other sector of the world economy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates the global transport system belches out about 22 percent of the world’s ice-cap melting CO2 emissions.

Thanks to globalization, the US imports meat from Brazil and fish from Thailand. Onions grown in Mexico are shipped to Ireland, and iceberg lettuce is flown from L.A. to London. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that “dining globally” can burn up to 17 times as much oil as feasting locally. Even within the US, the Organic Consumers Association estimates that some produce can log 1,500 to 2,500 miles from farm to fridge.

The Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology recently examined the life cycle of a bottle of tomato ketchup. They found that tomatoes grown in Italy were sent to Sweden for processing before being poured into bottles imported from Britain made with ingredients sourced from Japan, Belgium, and the US. By the time the bottle traveled to a grocery store and finally to a kitchen table, the process had consumed 4,190 more units of energy than was contained in the ketchup. And it generated more than 5,000 pounds of CO2.

In 2003, writer Kumar Venkat criticized globalization’s reliance on “trucks and airplanes at the expense of slower and more efficient trains and ships” and proposed global agreements to cap emissions and reduce travel distances. Unfortunately, Venkat reported, the World Bank and World Trade Organization “are silent about the links between trade, transportation, and climate. There are no policies or plans in place for the enormous task of replacing the world’s freight transportation infrastructure with a cleaner, low-emissions version.”

In this context, the locavore’s motto of “eat local” makes exquisite sense. But look what happened when Britain’s Tesco markets introduced a new “food miles” label. Environmentalists’ initial whoops of euphoria were quickly drowned out by the anguished cries of African farmers who had spent years learning to grow organic produce designed to meet the demands of the European Union.

Fortunately for Africa’s farmers, in a global market, “local” doesn’t always mean “fuel-efficient.” Researchers from the UK’s Cranfield University found it took less CO2 to import organically grown roses from sunny Kenya than to purchase roses raised in chilly Holland, where flowers are cultivated in energy-hogging hothouses. And because many Third World crops already have a “carbon credit” built in (they don’t use petroleum-based fuels or pesticides), “ecological outsourcing” can save money and reduce negative environmental impacts. It’s a form of carbon trading that benefits the grassroots, not the corporate treetops.

In March, Britain’s Institute of Science in Society reported that shifting to organic agriculture could cut world energy use by 16.5 percent and reduce greenhouse gases by 29.5 percent. In April, the UN Agricultural Assessment meeting in Johannesburg reached a similar conclusion, calling for an end to fossil fuel-based agriculture and a return to natural, low-impact, sustainable farming.

Ultimately, our survival may require that all farms convert to organic practices. And when this happens, it will undermine the trade-based dreams of poor farmers in Africa, Asia, and South America who have staked their futures on the false hope of globalization.

In the short term, we need to pay heed to the carbon footprint of globalization. In the long run, globalization’s gas tanks will run dry, leaving the industrial North to collapse like a punctured balloon. Localization must re-emerge around the planet as the human community is compelled to rely more on available resources. Our future survival will depend on the energy sources that sustained us long before the Age of Oil — sun, wind, river, and wave. And the traditional farmers of Africa, Asia and Latin America may become our best teachers.

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal and the editor of the online investigative Web site,

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