Placed-based sustainability efforts often fail to recognise the risk of turning up the environmental pressure elsewhere
In the world of arcades, the whack-a-mole is a classic. The game, in which players use a mallet to hit randomly appearing toy moles back into their holes, is an innocent reminder that fixing a problem in one place may only cause others to pop up elsewhere. But within sustainability, such problem solving come with more serious consequences. Coined environmental leakage, it refers to how interventions aimed at reducing environmental pressures at one site may be locally successful, but increase pressures elsewhere. On example is how the recovery of fish stocks in Europe has led to increased fishing pressure in West African waters. Another is how improved regulations of Chinese and European forests have led to deforestation in the tropics due to increased Chinese and European biomass imports. This not only has global environmental consequences but social ones as well, since people’s livelihoods in those distant places are often negatively impacted.
An approach of “out of sight, out of mind” can mean big problems when dealing with complex social-ecological challenges and can put into question well-intended place based sustainability practices.