Global Telecoupling: consumption is increasingly coupled to distant production areas
Land is used (consumed) both directly and indirectly to produce goods and services. Land uses can cover large areas, like agriculture, and comparatively small areas, like manufacturing. The production of those lands can be consumed locally or exported for foreign consumption.
In response to a growing population and improving economies in many places, the global demand for agricultural land increases. As with manufacturing, any land uses (e.g. agricultural, industrial) are typically displaced from developed to developing countries where land and labour is cheaper, environmental regulation is less stringent and policies are more favourable. Essentially, the production from land in one country is being consumed in another (e.g. Virtual Water on the next page). For example, more than 33 % of the US land used for production purposes has been displaced to other countries. In Europe, it is more than 50 %. In Japan, it is 92 %.
Physical transformation of “natural” landscapes to other productive uses, including intensively managed agricultural fields, is dramatic as are the changes imposed on local habitat, hydrology and biodiversity. Images of these changes – particularly those acquired from space – have helped to engage the attention of a global audience and mobilise efforts to understand and address the problems that accompany them. Images from satellites have also provided data at a global scale that allows for a comprehensive understanding of both the spatial and temporal dimensions of change. Collectively, physical consequences that result from land use change have significant global environmental impacts, particularly with respect to carbon emissions. For example, in response to increased global demand for agricultural production, conversion of Brazilian rainforest to soybean fields releases carbon contained in the soil and forest biomass into the atmosphere. Even though these increases have been partially offset by reforestation efforts in production areas and increased forest cover facilitated in consumption areas by the retirement of agricultural lands, the net result with respect to carbon emissions is still negative. The need for a more comprehensive and transparent assessment of how countries account for economic growth that includes displaced natural resources used – including land use change and carbon emissions – is an emerging challenge. Physical environmental changes are relatively easy to map, measure and document, but beyond economic and environmental considerations, the social and institutional feedbacks that shape and are shaped by land transformations are more difficult to map and understand.
Once it is accepted that these telecouplings exist, the first order impacts within affected areas are, on the surface, straightforward: there are losers and winners with respect to immediate economic and environmental outcomes. However, because we are dealing with human and natural systems that are inextricably linked, the web of impact typically extends into many economic and social webs of interaction at a variety of local, regional and global scales.
Resource governance, or the lines of control that govern land use, may not be in force, fully understood, or systematically circumvented in areas into which land uses are transferred. The effectiveness of local resource governance may determine which specific areas and populations are directly affected.
Within areas of consumption, the increasing free-flow of information may influence attitudes toward economic fairness and environmental sustainability and impact both production and consumption. The complexity of economic, environmental and social factors that influence and are affected by global telecouplings is a vibrant area of multidisciplinary research and is reshaping the ways in which we look at global markets, particularly within a framework of climate change.
In the future, it seems unlikely that large new areas of agriculture will be brought into production, particularly in the drylands, unless there is a transformative development in our ability to produce freshwater from other sources. Thus, as pointed out elsewhere it is more likely that agriculture will be intensified, particularly in those areas that are currently “underperforming.” In much of the drylands, this is likely to involve improving the performance of small farms.
Palm oil plantations in Indonesia.
Source: Copernicus Sentinel 2.