The future of globalisation? We could tell you, but we’d have to kill you

by | Apr 28, 2010

As regular readers will know, I’ve been banging on for a long time about the need for a comprehensive database that tells us exactly how exposed international trade is to peak oil – or, for that matter, to the maritime sector being brought into the international climate regime and made subject to really severe emission controls.

After all, the bunker fuels used to power container ships and bulk carriers are much less easily substitutable than other kinds of fossil fuels. You can replace coal-fired power stations with renewables or nuclear; you can replace petrol-fuelled cars with ones that run on electricity or hydrogen.  But ships? That’s another story. As a UK government study published just before Copenhagen found, for instance, “it will be extremely challenging, and expensive, to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from shipping and aviation … there are a number of options available in each sector, but currently most of these are not economically viable”.

But if we don’t have readily available substitutes for marine bunker fuels, then what happens to maritime trade – to globalisation itself, in other words – if oil costs start really soaring again, or governments start to get serious about carbon pricing?

In particular, as I asked in The Feeding of the Nine Billion, what happens to the import bills of countries that depend on food imports from overseas (like most of the fragile states in West Africa, for example)? And what does it mean for China – whose advantages on wage costs could easily end up offset by increased transport costs, as actually happened when oil costs went into triple digits?

Although a number of analysts have been asking that question ever since the oil price spiked in 2008 (most notably Jeff Rubin – see the link above and also this), what we’ve all lacked is a really serious database that works out the costs of maritime trade, and how exposed these are to energy prices. Until now.

For it turns out that the OECD have been compiling a large new Maritime Transport Costs database. Although they didn’t make a lot of noise about it, they also posted a working paper (pdf) on their website a few months back – which confirms the significance of the issue (emphasis added):

Maritime transport costs represent a high proportion of the imported value of agricultural products — 10% on average, which is a similar level of magnitude as agricultural tariffs. This study shows that a doubling in the cost of shipping is associated with a 42% drop in trade on average in agricultural goods overall. The tendency to source imports from countries with low transport costs is therefore strong. Trade in some products is particularly affected by changes in maritime transport costs, in particular cereals and oilseeds, which are shipped in bulk.

Most valuably of all, the database goes into massive levels of detail on fuel costs in particular – making it a truly indispensable part of the toolkit for working out what happens to globalisation in a world of emission controls and peak oil. So, where can you access the database?

Answer: you can’t. For news reaches me that its publication is being blocked, by one OECD member state alone – namely, the United States. For, it is said, reasons of national security. How do you like them apples? (Locally grown, I suppose.)


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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