Are sanctions stopping us from achieving global climate goals?

With economic sanctions becoming an increasingly popular political tool, Alexander Rustler argues that more attention must be paid to these sanctions’ longstanding ramifications on the environment. He does so by taking a closer look at the situation in Venezuela, Iran, and Russia.

Alexander Rustler
July 11, 2019

Economic sanctions are political instruments whose purpose is to isolate and hurt a target country’s economy, forcing policy revisions or bringing about political change. Although the number of sanctions imposed by international players like the EU and U.S. have surged since the 1990s, the rationale of such punitive measures remains contested. Even worse, the unintended consequences of accumulating sanctions might inhibit our chances at meeting global climate goals as they can precipitate devastating environmental impacts.

U.S. sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran have hit its economy hard. Inflation is expected to climb to around 40% and many industries are experiencing severe difficulties. Consequently, unemployment rates are soaring. In Venezuela, recently imposed sanctions have exacerbated already high inflation rates. Russia’s languishing economic performance has been aggravated by the EU’s comprehensive sanctions regime introduced after Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, leading to falling real income in the country, alongside higher unemployment and inflation.

The hitherto overlooked unintended consequences of sanctions can last for generations, regardless of whether these consequences are planned outcomes of the sanctions’ architects. Targeted countries, driven into global isolation in the short run, may resort to survivalist mechanisms to evade the sanctions' grip. The nation state is obliged to prioritise its citizens' wellbeing and, in a perceived existential crisis, attempts to shield them from the economic sanctions’ detrimental effects by ramping up domestic energy production or implementing unsustainable agricultural practices.

In the case of Iran, Tehran has accelerated water-resource infrastructure developments to boost agricultural output and ensure food security, leading to rapidly receding ground-water levels. To secure its energy supply, Iran has turned petrochemical factories into oil refineries. Reports suggest that Iran’s home-grown petrol contains ten times the level of contaminants found in imported fuel, and the sulphur content of its domestically produced diesel is 800 times higher than that of the international standard.

From Russia to Venezuela, the environmental dimensions of such isolated ad hoc development include increased pollution, declining water resources, deforestation and desertification, as well as irreversible biodiversity loss. While sanctions are not the main cause of sanctioned countries’ environmental problems, they undoubtedly intensify the situation. Sanctions lock countries into unsustainable practices that will adversely affect the health and quality of life for generations. Estimates suggest that over 70% of Iran’s ground-water resources have been irreversibly squandered. Rivers have dried up and agricultural opportunities forever lost, due to unregulated irrigation, overgrazing, land degradation, and soil erosion.

In addition to these short-term survivalist policy responses, with conceivably far worse medium to long-term impacts, are the sanction regime’s structural ramifications. In the long run, economic sanctions bar countries from accessing urgently needed paradigm changes enabling them to pursue sustainable and climate-responsible policies.

Environmentally sustainable economic growth and climate change, despite their enduring peripheral presence over recent decades, have only just entered the agenda of high politics in advanced industrialised countries. The process of environmental policy issues graduating from fringe party alarmism to mainstream politics has been a protracted one. The proliferation of green parties in the European parliamentary elections and in various national polities are a point in case.

Recent research shows that the electoral success of political movements with an environmentalist agenda is correlated with the electorates’ levels of prosperity, allowing for peoples’ priorities to change from materialist issues concerning the affordability of food, housing, and personal mobility to more post-materialist quality-of-life issues, such as environmental health and climate change.

The attainment of a post-materialist society is driven by economic development and rising living standards. Sanctions proactively hinder this process. The support for environmentalist policies is susceptible to economic downturns, especially higher levels of unemployment. In bad economic times, priorities are shifted away from environmentalism. Concern for the environment is deemed an unaffordable distraction from more tangible issues of stability and securing personal livelihoods. Environmental altruism, it seems, prospers relative to the fortunes of respective electorates.

Stymying countries’ progress towards post-materialist levels of welfare and prohibiting the political pursuit of environmental objectives, might severely harm our chances of achieving global climate goals. Whether sanctions are “smart,” “targeted,” or not, comprehensive economic sanctions are always an indiscriminate collective punishment, squeezing middle classes, retarding economic growth, and muzzling production. They trap civilian populations in a perpetual quest for materialism.

The debate on sanctions is too often centred around their political and economic ramifications. Responsible strategists should raise their environmental awareness beyond the immediately tangible when designing fiscally restrictive punitive instruments. Past experiences, well beyond the cases of Venezuela, Iran, and Russia, have shown that the imposition of sanctions carries significant unintended consequences for the environment and the climate in the short, medium, and especially the long-term.

Sanctions are political tools aimed at cordoning off and impairing a target country’s economy. They should not become tools aimed at polluting and devastating the world’s environment.

Alexander Rustler is a Lemann Foundation Fellow and MPA in Development Practice candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He specialises in Advanced Policy and Economic Analysis in Emerging and Developing Economies. He holds a Masters in Political Economy from the London School of Economics.