What can we expect to come out of the Glasgow COP meetings? If the pattern established by previous COPs is repeated, not much. Dire statistics will be cited, pleas for action will be heard, earnest pronouncements will be made, non-binding goals will be established – and policymakers will congratulate themselves on having taken steps to address an existential threat.
How well is this process working? A quick look at global GHG emissions since the COP was established more than a quarter century ago does not inspire confidence. The first meeting was in Berlin in 1995, and global CO2 emissions that year were 21.4 Gt. By 2019 they had increased by nearly half, to 31.3 Gt. Atmospheric CO2, needless to say, has steadily risen (see below).
The only real reductions in emissions were not the result of policies agreed upon at COP meetings, they were the product of economic slowdowns – from the financial collapse in 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. This highlights a simple truth: the fastest and most reliable way to reduce GHG emissions is to make fundamental changes to the economy. The question is: how can the economy be transformed in ways that actually improve people’s lives – providing the huge environmental benefits we need without enormous social and economic costs?
The answer is simple: economic localization.
Here are five ways localization lowers GHG emissions while actually increasing quality of life for the vast majority:
1. Localization eliminates unnecessary transport
International trade today is no longer about obtaining goods that can’t be produced locally or regionally, nor is it about exchanging surpluses. Instead, it is about maximizing profits within a global economic system that ignores social and environmental costs. One result is that a lot of trade is simply ‘redundant’, with goods sourced from thousands of miles away when an identical product is available next door. This is particularly true in the global food system. Britain, for example, imports and exports 15,000 tons of waffles annually, and exchanges 20 tons of bottled water with Australia; supermarkets on the Citrus Coast of Spain carry imported lemons while local lemons are left to rot on the ground; Canada simultaneously imports and exports greenhouse tomatoes.
In some cases, heavy subsidies for fossil fuels and other resources needed for global trade – combined with the exploitation of abysmally low wages abroad – leads to foods being shipped to the other side of the world just to shave a few cents off the cost of production or to add a few cents to the sales price. The US seafood company Trident is typical: to save on labor costs it ships about 30 million pounds of fish annually to China for filleting, and then ships the fish back to the US for sale. For reasons that should be clear, we refer to this as ‘insane trade.’
Trade in manufactured goods is not as likely to be insane as trade in food, but globalization has increased transport distances in this sector as well. The parts in a typical iPhone, for example, travel a total of 500,000 miles before reaching the end user. Among the many effects of the COVID-19 pandemic was to reveal how vulnerable to disruption these long supply chains are.
Thanks to corporate deregulation, the volumes, tonnage, and energy footprint of global trade have grown rapidly in recent decades. The total volume of goods and resources traded around the world has increased by a factor of 2.5 during the past 30 years (roughly corresponding to the period of corporate-led globalization). By 2009 the volume transported globally was 32 times greater than it was in 1950.
If globalization is allowed to continue on its current trajectory, the energy required for global trade – and the consequent emissions – will continue to rise. By 2050 trade volumes are expected to increase more than four-fold; average hauling distances will grow by 12%, and CO2 emissions related to global freight transport will increase by 290%.
Putting an end to insane trade is probably the fastest and easiest way to reduce GHG emissions. But despite the clear correlation between long-distance transport and rising GHG emissions, climate negotiators have never considered reducing even insane trade as a climate-stabilizing strategy. In fact, the opposite is true: the commitments made by nations under the Paris climate accords, for example, don’t include emissions from international aviation and shipping, and so no nation has any incentive to reduce them. In other words, the economic benefits of needless transport will continue to be given to the trading corporations, while the costs are shifted to the environment and future generations.
2. Localization promotes sufficiency rather than consumerism
High levels of consumption in the ‘developed’ countries are a major factor in GHG emissions and many other forms of pollution, as well as in resource depletion. Environmental breakdown is telling us that those consumption levels are too high, but the economic model on which the global economy is based requires constant growth. Whenever there is an economic slowdown, in fact, governments typically intervene by lowering interest rates, cutting taxes, or taking other steps to “stimulate consumer spending”.
In the ‘less-developed’ parts of the world it is presumed that a continued push for economic growth will eventually enable standards of living to approach the levels found in Europe and North America. But the developed countries are already using far more than their share of resources, while placing a much greater burden on the Earth’s ability to absorb wastes like greenhouse gases. For the rest of the world to consume and pollute at the same pace would require almost four additional planets. (Actually even more planets would be required: by the time ‘development’ enables people in the global South to reach Northern levels of consumption, those levels will presumably have risen still further.)
One way that economic globalization increases consumption is by imposing a consumer monoculture. Every day, people around the world are bombarded with media images that present the modern, Western consumer lifestyle as the ideal, while implicitly denigrating local traditions and land-based ways of life. As a result, millions of people are abandoning traditional local foods for highly processed junk food, while clothing made of local wool, flax or cotton is giving way to imported designer jeans and polyester. In the process, the use of energy-intensive resources is going up, along with pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Even in the North, cradle-to-grave advertising and planned obsolescence enable marketers and technological “innovators” to create a never-ending stream of new needs among people who already have more “stuff” than the vast majority of the global population. For the individual, this consumption treadmill ultimately leads nowhere: studies have shown that once basic needs are met, further increments of consumption don’t actually leave people any happier, and in fact have the counterproductive effect of eroding well-being.
If running ever faster on the consumer treadmill ultimately erodes long-term well-being, localization offers the prospect of genuine improvements in quality of life for the vast majority. In healthy local economies, people are deeply connected to both community and the natural world – connections that psychologists recognize as fundamental wellsprings of happiness. Those connections can be made without the material throughputs that consumerism requires, enabling improvements to be made in quality of life at the same time that environmental impacts are reduced – something borne out by empirical studies. For example, a study of an ecovillage in rural Missouri showed that, compared to national US averages, residents produce only 18 percent as much municipal solid waste, drive 10 percent the number of miles, consume 6 percent as much fuel, and use only 23 percent as much water. Despite using far fewer resources, 81 percent of Dancing Rabbit members rate their level of happiness at 7 or above on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most happy. This finding is confirmed by a survey of the members of almost 200 intentional communities worldwide.
3. Localization turns the food system into a carbon sink
The global food system is a major contributor to climate change, with estimates of the food sector’s contribution to GHG emissions ranging from 19-29 percent. The globalization and industrialization of the food economy is responsible for a large and growing portion of that total. This is because:
• Globalization leads to needless trade in food, described above, and increases the distance between producers and consumers. By shrinking ‘food miles’, localization reduces transport-related emissions.
• The global food economy requires far more processing and packaging than local food systems: in the US for example, more than one-third of the energy used by the food system is used for packaging and processing. A significant proportion of the roughly 170 million tons of plastic packaging produced each year worldwide – most of it intended to be disposed of after a single use – is used in the food industry.  When consumers are buying direct from farmers, on the other hand, the need for packaging and processing all but disappears.
• Globalization is structurally linked to agricultural monoculture. Because global marketers need massive amounts of a few globally-traded commodities, it is far more ‘efficient’ to source those foods from a few giant monocultural farms than from hundreds of diversified farms. Monocultures rely heavily on agrochemicals and mechanized equipment – both of which result in significant GHG emissions. They also degrade soil, depleting it of the ability to sequester carbon. Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, enables soil to absorb a large proportion of the excess carbon in the atmosphere. Local food economies, by contrast, are structurally suited to regenerative agriculture practices. That’s because local economies don’t need huge amounts of single commodities, but rather a diversity of foods – which provides an economic incentive for farmers selling locally to diversify their farms. This connection can be clearly seen in those parts of the global South where farmers have been able to resist inroads from industrial agriculture. Most of them produce for their own families, and sometimes for regional or local markets. Their farms are small, highly diversified, and – though the farmers themselves may not describe them this way – are based on regenerative agro-ecological practices.
• Globalization is leading to dietary changes that exacerbate GHG emissions. The mimicking of Western patterns of consumption mean that global meat consumption is expected to double by 2050, most of it sourced from factory farms that are major contributors to climate change: factory-farmed broiler chickens, for example, produce seven times more GHG emissions than backyard chickens.  At the same time, huge supermarket chains have trained Northern consumers to eat out-of-season foods that have to been transported from thousands of miles away. These perishable foods are not only produced on monocultural farms, but many also require refrigeration and air transport, adding to their carbon footprint.
What’s more, globalization has enabled transnational food corporations to spread highly processed, plastic-packaged junk food into parts of the world that previously relied on more nutritious and home-cooked foods – in the process worsening public health, increasing waste, and adding to the energy footprint of food. The global sale of packaged foods jumped more than 90 percent from 2002 to 2012, with 2012 sales topping $2.2 trillion. While the global food system homogenizes diets worldwide, local food systems promote a diversity of food preferences that are attuned to local soils, climates, and cultural traditions.
• The global food system destroys rainforests and other wild ecosystems. Many of the planet’s carbon-sequestering natural ecosystems are being destroyed to make way for monocultural production for global markets: Brazil, for example, is converting large swaths of the Amazon to soybean production for export to large-scale animal feedlots, while Indonesia’s rainforests are being displaced by palm oil plantations, mostly destined for processed junk food products. As Brazilian activist Camila Moreno points out: “If you really want a mechanism to avoid deforestation, dismantle agribusiness. This is the main driver of deforestation in the entire South”.
• The global food system robs people of the ability to feed themselves. In the global economy, food goes to the highest bidder, rather than the hungriest child. In rural parts of Kenya, for example, nearly 40% of the population lived in poverty in 2016; meanwhile, much of Kenya’s best agricultural land was devoted to growing black tea and cut flowers for export to Europe and North America, rather than feeding hungry people at home. This is not a problem unique to Kenya: a recent study showed that 550 million people in Asia, Africa, and Oceania could be fed from land that has been taken over by foreign governments and corporations – mostly for exported food and biofuel crops.  Local food systems, by contrast, focus on feeding local people first, before any surpluses are traded. Much of the food grown in local food systems – especially in the global South – remains outside the formal money economy and therefore adds nothing to GDP or the bottom lines of global agribusinesses. But if the goal is to improve people’s quality of life while reducing GHG emissions, there is no better place to start than by strengthening local food systems.
4. Localization replaces energy-intensive technologies with human labor and skill
Globalization is both scaling up and speeding up the economy – two trends that put a premium on energy-intensive technology while devaluing human labor. Robots are increasingly relied upon to do factory work that was once done by people – a trend that is spreading to every other sector of the economy, including farming.
The mainstream narrative is that all this is happening because of efficiencies of scale. However, these technologies are not more efficient when all the costs are taken into account. Because the price of energy doesn’t include its ecological costs – including greenhouse gas emissions – it becomes artificially cheap to use more and more of it. It has been estimated that the direct and hidden subsidies for fossil fuels alone amount to $10 million per minute. At the same time, governments provide a wide range of subsidies, many of them hidden, for energy-dependent technologies. Tax breaks, tax credits, accelerated depreciation and other subsidies are provided to companies that invest in technology; hiring workers, on the other hand, means paying costly payroll taxes that make human labor artificially expensive.
Because local economies serve much smaller populations than the global economy, they do not justify massive expenditures on robots and other energy-intensive equipment. Instead there is a premium on place-based knowledge and human skill. In the global North the mega-farms of industrial agriculture tend to employ a lot of immigrant labor because the working conditions are poor, or the work is seasonal. In contrast, the diversity of enterprises on a farm mean there is more likely to be year-round work and the continual experimentation and learning characteristic of regenerative agriculture make that work more interesting. What’s more, the location-specific knowledge that small farmers have is one reason their farms are more productive per unit of land, energy, and water than large-scale mechanized monocultures.
5. Localization stems the tide of energy-intensive urbanization.
The consumer culture that globalization promotes is increasingly urban. At first glance, high-density urban living might appear to reduce per capita use of resources. But this is only true when compared with life in the grossly inefficient suburbs, which are themselves a product of urbanization. Compared to more genuinely decentralized towns and villages connected to a surrounding localized economy, urbanization is extremely resource-intensive.
One reason is that virtually every material need of urbanised populations must be brought in from elsewhere, requiring vast energy-intensive infrastructures to do so. For example, almost all the food consumed by city dwellers must be grown for them, typically on giant, chemical and energy intensive farms. All this food must then be brought into the cities on roads purpose-built to accommodate huge trucks. Similarly, providing water involves enormous dams, man-made reservoirs, and aqueducts stretching into distant hills and mountains. Energy production means huge, centralized power plants, coal and uranium mines, along with thousands of miles of transmission lines.
Urbanization is also linked to significant increases in consumerism. A report by the McKinsey Global Institute points out that “the shift to cities is creating waves of new consumers who promise burgeoning markets for businesses.” This may be good for global corporations, but for the environment and the climate it is a disaster. Among other things, the flood of new urbanites will require a near doubling of the current amount of commercial and residential floor space (an area equivalent to the size of Austria) and a 250 percent increase in port infrastructure to meet rising container shipping demand. Most of this construction requires cement, a material with a huge carbon footprint: according to a BBC report, “if the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world, behind China and the US.”
Studies show that even in the global North, urbanization adds to people’s carbon footprint. In Finland, for example, annual GHG emissions by a resident of that country’s biggest city, Helsinki, are almost 40% higher than emissions by rural residents.
Because rural towns and villages are more connected economically to the surrounding landbase, they are places where localization initiatives can take root quickly if they are given government support. By improving the vitality of rural life, localization can help stem the tide of rapid urbanization. This alone would provide enormous opportunities for GHG reduction.
* * *
As Local Futures has argued more fully elsewhere, a shift in direction from global to local is not only the most sensible response to climate change, it would simultaneously address the many other social, environmental and economic problems we face: poverty and unemployment, pollution, the erosion of democracy, the loss of cultural and biological diversity, rising levels of senseless violence, fundamentalism, and more.
Nonetheless, the negotiators at previous climate talks have studiously avoided any discussion of economic localization, no doubt at the direction of political leaders back home. Without pressure from below, those government leaders – who are heavily influenced by corporate campaign donations and lobbying – cannot be counted on to take the lead. But if people across the world join forces to apply massive pressure for a shift from global to local, the corporate spin can be reversed, and real solutions to the climate emergency can be pursued.
This post is excerpted from a chapter by Alex Jensen, Steven Gorelick and Anne Chapman in the newly published book, Climate Adaptation: Accounts of Resilience, Self-Sufficiency and Systems Change.
Photo by Ma Ti on Unsplash
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