To boldly go… to a low carbon future

By Bryan Walker 08/01/2012

I liked the sub-heading to a Guardian article on Friday. ’The theory that cutting carbon emissions costs us growth is bunk, in fact, it’s an economic opportunity.’ The article itself is a little less exuberant in its expression, understandably given that one of its authors, Vinod Thomas (pictured), is director general for independent evaluation at the Asian Development Bank and the other, Manish Bapna, is interim president at the World Resources Institute, a well-established and respected global environmental think tank. Nevertheless its affirmation is clear:

’Not only can preparing for climate change offer opportunities for economic growth, it would be unwise to pursue one without the other.’

They acknowledge that there is currently something of a stalemate between the stubborn economic downturn and the need to effectively address climate change, with many arguing that the latter would be harmful to economic recovery. The writers disagree. They present specific examples of ’common sense policies that can promote growth and cut greenhouse gas emissions’. The examples are not unfamiliar, but it’s worth being steadily reminded of them in a world which seems to find it so difficult to think of economic recovery in any other terms than a re-establishment of disrupted patterns.

First is energy, which substantially influences both the climate and the economy. The article points to the huge gains to be made through energy efficiency, which can both drive growth and make a significant dent in emissions, given the right drivers and incentives. The other obvious step is phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, which attracted a staggering $409 billion in 2010. It is politically challenging, but it would both spur global clean energy development and generate economic growth.

The writers’ second example is forestry. Land in areas such as the Amazon is worth a good deal more with trees than cleared for pasture, at even a modest price of $10 a ton for unreleased emissions. Preventing deforestation in such situations is an economy-boosting opportunity. So is the restoration of already degraded lands.  Niger, one of the world’s poorest nations, offers a prime example. Reform of land and tree tenure and a programme to support regeneration of trees has benefitted 4.5 million people, increasing food production and farmers’ incomes, as it creates new markets.

The third example is public transport.

’While an expanding auto industry can be part of a country’s economic recovery, investments in cleaner public transport have been found to generate even greater economic returns.

’In the United States, stimulus dollars spent on public transport yielded 70 more job hours than those spent on highways, according to Smart Growth America. Meanwhile in Mexico, the government is pursuing an innovative transportation approach with policies and investments to scale up bus rapid-transit networks across the country.’

The writers recognise that against the logic of such examples powerful special interests are blocking progress in many countries.

’To overcome these entrenched interests, countries – especially the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitters — need to recognize that addressing climate change is in their national interest and will improve public well-being.’

Entrenched interests are certainly the sticking-point. In a country like the US they wield enormous power, helped greatly by the ease with which political support can be purchased. In another Guardian article this week Bill McKibben is eloquent on the need to get corporate cash out of Congress. The sad spectacle of Republican presidential nomination candidates falling over each other in the rush to deny or soft-pedal the scientific reality of climate change and to support continuing fossil fuel exploitation has been a reminder of the iron grip of vested interests on the political life of that country.

Not that heavy funding of political parties is the only way such interests are secured. When I was reading the Guardian articles I thought of the New Zealand government’s position. It speaks of addressing climate change and of economic growth, but not in terms of their being interdependent; finding balance between the two demands is its preferred, and frequently reiterated, mode. The difference is not inconsequential. It allows strong support to the maintenance of business as usual, tempered or disguised by a patina of light environmental regulation such as the current form of the emissions trading scheme. It envisages with equanimity the full development of New Zealand’s fossil fuel resources, down to Southland lignite and offshore methane hydrates if we can get to them. Blatant financial backing of political candidates may not figure strongly in the New Zealand setting, but the political influence of vested interests is pervasive and it is apparently in any case difficult for many politicians to move in their thinking outside the conventional structure of the economy.

Thomas and Bapna use the term political courage as they urge countries to act boldly and urgently toward the low carbon future which must ultimately be embraced, and remind us that there will be rewards for those who do. They could have added that the longer the delay the more fearful the consequences, but they stayed with their central argument that there is commonality, not conflict, between effective mitigation of climate change and economic recovery.