International political economy and the environment

Gian Delgado Ramos


The current global ecological crisis is so profound that it has been suggested that an epoch-scale boundary has been crossed, from the Holocene to the so-called Anthropocene (Crutzen 2002). Such a new geological epoch, a statement still in debate (Lewis and Maslin 2015), postulates that anthropogenic changes are of such a scale that they might be observable in future geological stratigraphic records. There is, however, no general agreement on when such epoch apparently began. Some date it when tossil fuels became the main energy source of capitalism, as early as the end ot the eighteenth century with the use ot coal. Others, at some point around halfway through the twentieth century, when a “Great Acceleration” started, noticed “a remarkable discontinuity in the human enterprise” that speed up most ot economic, social and environmental indicators (Steffen et al. 2011).

The globalization of the economy, only possible by an accelerated development ot the means of production and circulation of goods and services, has progressively coupled economic growth with energy and material consumption and environmental degradation. Material and energy consumption have increased, for the case of some materials — like cement — at higher rates than economic growth and certainly above population growth rates (Steinberger, Krausmann, and Eisenmenger 2010). This intense transformation ot nature has caused a persistent transgression of the planetary boundaries, meaning the environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate (Steffen et al. 2015).

Biophysical impacts include the rise in global temperature and sea levels, ocean acidification and coral bleaching, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water, soil and air pollution, among others that take place at the global level, but also at the local and regional levels, which in turn can create synergies and feedbacks at all time and spatial scales.

Anthropogenic climate change has been unequivocally recognized in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — IPCC (IPCC 2014a) as well as in the Global Warming of 1.5 Report, which estimates that global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate (IPCC 2018). Land degradation, understood as the many processes that drive the decline of biodiversity, ecosystem functions or ecosystem services has been assessed by the (IPBES 2018), while the depletion or degradation of several key resources by the GEO 5 and GEO 6 Report, which warn, among other issues, that the current state ot the environment is already constraining conventional development in some parts of the world (UNEP 2012; 2019).

The evolution ot such global environmental conditions has certainly shaped the international environmental politics approaches, evolving from one centered on the availability/scarcity of natural resources (e.g., timber, fossil fuels, minerals or water), to others focused on the impacts of industrial practices, the concerns regarding population growth and, more recently, global environmental problems and the interplay of economic globalization and environmental regulation (Stevis and Assetto 2001).

In the following section some theoretical, as well as other aspects of International Political Economy and the Environment (IPE&E) are analyzed.

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