Toly, Noah. (2011). “Cities, the environment, and global governance: A political ecological perspective” in Amen, M., Toly, N., McCarney, P., & Segbers, K. (2011). Cities and global governance: new sites for international relations. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

In this chapter, Toly makes an interesting point, similar to what Conca (2006) refers to in his critique of a regime approach to global environmental degradation. Toly states “patterns of global production, distribution, and consumption shape local distributions of environmental goods and ills, especially risks, in cities” (p. 138). The connection between local production processes and global consumption patterns is often overlooked and under appreciated. Where local environmental degradation impacts lives and livelihoods, ecosystems and environments, it is critical to understand how global processes shape the local impacts. Brownfields and air pollution are provided as examples by Toly.

This connection between global consumption and local production is one recognized by Conca (2006) in his critique of a regime approach to global environmental governance. Conca (2006) argues the regime approach does not address environmental challenges that lay within national boundaries, which is the purview of national governments (who claim authority for national environmental laws and regulations), and reinforces the notion of the planet as being ‘bordered’, with authority vested most powerfully in state actors. The problem with the regime approach, according to Conca (2006), and the point made by Toly (2011), is that global patterns shape local processes. But, a regime approach applies only to environmental issues which may straddle a border, and do not address the domestic implications of global processes. Conca argues that causes and consequences are not aligned – local environmental problems are appropriate subjects in a discussion of ‘global environmental governance’, but the causes (the transnational character of economic, social, and political institutions) are not part of the ‘global’ discussion – they are left for the ‘domestic’ realm to address.

Correspondingly, local environmental impacts have ‘profoundly global implications through their cumulative impact on key global systems and cycles and their increasingly far-flung reverberations across a densely interconnected social world’ (Conca, 2006, p. 19). This implies that the ecological world does not recognize the jurisdictional borders placed upon the planet. From a watershed approach, one could argue that we are all downriver of someplace. The challenge, as posed by Conca, is to ‘deal with the accumulating impact on local ecosystems in a world where political, economic, cultural, and informational borders have been obliterated’ (2006, p. 20).

Toly (2011) illustrates the impact of an ecologically borderless world, which challenges the notion of externalizing risks and damages associated with industrial development, with the case of Hong Kong’s polluting industries migrating to mainland China, where environmental policies are lax. Often referred as ‘the race to the bottom’, jurisdictions with poor environmental policies, or abilities to enforce environmental legislation, find themselves contending with heavily polluting industries from abroad. Yet, in the case of industry from Hong Kong, the air pollution supposedly externalized to China eventually drifted across the Pearl River in a “toxic cloudbank”, and impacted air quality in Hong Kong (Toly 2011, p. 141-143).

This notion of ‘the race to the bottom’ has been disputed, through what is referred to as the ‘California Effect’. This is in reference to higher standards for automotive emissions. With some of the strongest air emission controls in the US, automakers are required to meet these stringent standards, lest they loose out on the automotive sector in Cali. Instead of developing technology for California only, and resorting to lower emission control technology for the rest of the US, automakers often develop technology that meets the Cali standards, and uses this in cars destined for the rest of the country. This could also be referred to a ‘scale-up effect’ for clean technology development. California also provides ‘regulatory certainty’, whereby industry knows the standards they must meet, and can plan long-term strategies for this. Investment in an environment where regulations change quickly and unpredictably is unfavourable to industry.

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