The government of Brazil is demanding that the UK take back 1,400 tonnes of hazardous waste that have been shipped to three Brazilian ports. The incident illustrates the broader phenomenon of rich states exporting pollution, both in the form of directly shipping hazardous materials abroad and by eliminating highly polluting industries domestically and importing their products from developing countries. All this helps to sustain the illusion that lifestyles in developed states are sustainable, since both resource and waste problems are shifted to places where they are less immediately visible.
Whether the issue is ozone depleting substances, persistent organic pollutants, or greenhouse gasses, distance alone is no real protection for the population of developed states. Fundamentally global problems like these require coordinated solutions involving states at very different levels of wealth, and with different internal political arrangements. The negotiators at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Copenhagen this December have quite a challenge ahead of them.