Private interests are costing us the Earth. Corruption represents one of our biggest obstacles in combatting the climate crisis. Ancient forests are illegally felled, oceans are overfished, oil poisons lakes, and critical green legislation is hindered or delayed. Often, corruption plays a role in all these ecological challenges.
For the purposes of this article, we will use Transparency International’s definition of corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. This abuse can involve public officials taking a bribe or favour in exchange for a service, exploiting the public purse or giving public jobs or employment to their friends, families and associates, or companies offering kickbacks to public servants to serve their business ambitions. The economic, political, and human costs of corruption are myriad, but today we will consider the environmental impact of corruption.
Thanks to corruption, environmental crime is able to thrive, climate funds are embezzled, and the regulations that are intended to protect the planet are circumvented. The following is a series of examples that demonstrate the devastating impact corruption has upon the Earth:
Corruption Facilitates Environmental Crime: Illegal Logging and Deforestation
Collusion between criminals and the authorities facilitates illegal activity that promotes ecological destruction. Corruption assists crimes like animal poaching, the dumping of hazardous waste, unreported fishing, and the illegal trade of ozone depleting substances. Below we will explore illegal logging to best illustrate the link between crime, corruption, and environmental damage.
Corruption in the forest sector can involve bribery for logging rights, authorities turning a blind eye to deforestation outside of permitted zones, and allowing unlawfully-felled, often protected species of wood to be laundered out of the country. This activity ranges from small-scale petty bribes taken by poorly paid local workers to elite criminal networks of corruption.
Illegal logging leads to unsustainable forest management and deforestation, which displaces local communities, can contribute to land erosion, flooding, and threaten forest-dependent ecosystems, leading to a loss in biodiversity. Broader impacts include the depletion of ancient forests as vital carbon sinks (places that absorb more carbon than they release). An intergovernmental panel assessed with high confidence that through limiting deforestation and providing long-term livelihoods for communities, sustainable forest management is one of the most effective options for tackling climate change whilst upholding sustainable development. A 150-year-old beech tree absorbs nine tonnes of carbon dioxide in its lifetime, but old-growth forests containing even older trees are indiscriminately cut down. The forestry sector is more vulnerable to crime and corruption thanks to high timber values, low visibility, low public sector salaries, an unstandardized product, poorly designed regulation, the broad discretionary powers of local forestry officers, and the improbability of harsh punishment for those that do break rules.
Corruption in the Global Extractive Industries
As well as the timber trade, corruption is rife in the fossil fuel and mining sectors. In fact, a commonly discussed phenomenon is the ‘resource curse’, the idea that natural resource rich nations are more vulnerable to exploitation and corruption. Geographically concentrated resources like oil conjure up opportunities for corruption throughout the entire extraction process.
Mutually beneficial, or ‘sweetheart’ deals, where corporations are keen to engage in corrupt deals with officials, are common in nations with an abundance of natural resources. Companies enter into bribes with the expectation of a tax break or the half-hearted enforcement of environmental regulations. Regulatory bodies may begin to serve the interests of commercial entities rather than the public interest, which is known as regulatory capture. When a government turns a blind eye to the original regulations, the environment can be harmed in several ways, ranging from local to global:
- Avoiding Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA): Corrupt politicians and businesses may try to expedite Environmental Impact Assessments and obtain drilling or mining permits more quickly. EIAs allow local communities and non-governmental organisations to raise concerns over the environmental impact of a proposed project, but only when carried out properly.
- Local pollutive effects: The local environmental impact of a drilling or mining operation can be exacerbated by corruption and irresponsible extraction practices. Extraction sites disrupt nature and ruin wildlands. Air pollution, for example through heavy dust from mining sites, endangers the health of local people and livestock. Light pollution also impacts wildlife: The glare from oil fields and gas sites can be seen from space. This luminosity can disrupt pollinators like bees, which, in turn, takes a toll on the surrounding plant population. Obviously, we are still reliant on mining and fossil fuel extraction in our everyday lives. This does not mean, however, that corporations should play fast and loose with regulations and the planet’s welfare.
- Devastating oil spills and leaks: Corruption was a major contributor to the decline of Venezuela’s oil industry. Abandoned and decrepit pipelines spew crude oil into the surrounding water. Some lakes now have ‘dead zones’, named because oil slicks have deprived them of oxygen and damaged biodiversity.
- Corruption creates pollution havens: The idea that nations with corruption opportunities, lax environmental regulation and market access to high-income countries will attract polluting industries. Corporations set up shop in these areas to maximise profit while paying less care to the environment.
- Emissions speed up climate change: In a 27-year study, Sinha et al. found that public sector corruption fuels environmental degradation by increasing the harmful impact of fossil fuel consumption and reducing the positive impact of renewable energy usage.
Corruption Stands in the Way of Positive Change
Corruption also contributes to climate change in a more convoluted way. As well as undermining existing environmental safeguards, corruption acts as an obstacle to political and legal reform: standing in the way of green policies and legislation and influencing political will in favour of private interests. Let’s elaborate:
- Corruption as an obstacle to reform: Empirical studies have shown that corruption can be a significant determinant of environmental policies. Pellegrini and Gerlagh found that it has a negative effect on political commitment to the environment. Of course, corporations and special interests often successfully influence climate policies in nations with relatively low levels of corruption. Nevertheless, conflicts of interest, bribery, disproportionate lobbying power, and revolving doors (the constant exchange of personnel between industry and the public sector) make it even easier for private actors to inhibit green policies, such as carbon taxes. Certain businesses make it harder for meaningful collective action to take place, spreading misinformation and intimidating environmental defenders.
- The embezzlement of funds earmarked for the environment: Billions of dollars are being invested into climate finance, a major intergovernmental tool for tackling climate change. A report estimated that in Bangladesh, 35% of climate project funds are embezzled in a country that is left particularly vulnerable to climate change. Many of the top recipients of climate funding in the form of overseas aid are perceived to have high corruption risks. Therefore, campaigners are asking for greater transparency and regulation of climate funds. Transparency International’s Climate & Corruption Atlas is a helpful resource that documents cases of corruption in climate finance across the globe and demonstrates how endemic the problem truly is.
The issues detailed above are by no means an exhaustive list of the links between corruption and environmental destruction. It is vital to address the significant role that corrupt activity plays in climate change discourse. Once we get serious about corruption, we can finally get serious about the environment.