The Worldwatch Institute believes that environmental improvements must be pursued at an international level if they are to counter the damage done by globalised trade in goods such as forest products, fish and pesticides.

The report, Vanishing Borders: Protecting the Planet in the Age of Globalization, says forests are shrinking as the value of global trade in forest products climbs, from $29 billion in 1961 to $139 billion in 1998. Fisheries are collapsing as fish exports rise, growing nearly fivefold in value

since 1970 to reach $52 billion in 1997. Human health is also endangered, with pesticide exports increasing nearly ninefold since 1961, to $11.4 billion in 1998.

“The surge in movements of goods, money, species, and pollution across international borders is placing unprecedented strains on the planet,” said Hilary French, author of the report. “Ironically, the best way to tackle these problems is by putting globalisation to work for us, instead of against us.”

French points to the fact that people are using new communications technologies to create international coalitions in order to protest against the activities of similarly globalised organisations such as the WTO (see related story).

French says trade can help spread environmentally beneficial products and technologies. China has become the world’s largest manufacturer of energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs in recent years, in part through joint ventures with lighting firms based in Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands, and Taiwan.

Redirecting the global economy away from environmentally harmful activities and into more sustainable ones will require a complex strategy, French says, starting with requiring international economic institutions like the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank, to pay more attention to the environmental impact of their programmes.

French calls for the incorporation of a greater respect for the precautionary principle into the WTO’s deliberations and for countries to be allowed to use trade measures to protect the global commons.

A stronger international environmental infrastructure is also needed to act as an ecological counterweight to today’s growing economic powerhouses, French says.

The report says there are now more than 230 environmental treaties, with three-fourths of them agreed to over the last thirty years. But the effectiveness of these agreements is often undermined by vague commitments and lax enforcement. “Environmentalists should take a page from the WTO and push for international environmental commitments that are as specific and enforceable as trade accords have become,” says French.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie