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Green Planet

Fifty Shades of Green

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Climate change has long turned from a narrow environmental problem into a significant factor affecting economic processes around the globe. Temperatures on the planet have risen by nearly 1°C compared to the pre-industrial era, and scientists have no doubts that this process will continue. This has already started to adversely affect people’s health in different countries, their access to water and food, and their exposure to natural disasters. Efforts to combat climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions serve as a main driver of the world economy’s green transformation. The power generation sector is gradually transitioning towards cleaner energy sources, industry and construction are increasingly embracing green standards, and green bonds are booming in the financial market.

The Iceberg of Green Transformation

The measures being taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be compared to an iceberg. The smaller but most prominent part above the sea surface is the 2015 Paris Agreement, which has been ratified by 185 countries to date (Russia is expected to ratify it in 2019). The document calls for capping the rise in temperatures at no more than 2°C compared to the pre-industrial period, preferably at 1.5°C if at all possible. However, unlike the Kyoto Protocol that came before, the Paris Agreement does not impose obligations on all the signatory countries; rather, it merely determines the procedure for declaring so-called nationally determined contributions, which are each nation’s emission reduction plans. The countries develop their plans individually and voluntarily, based on their own development strategies for the economy and the energy sector. The contributions declared to date are fairly modest: they will only cap the rising temperatures at around 3°C above the pre-industrial era.

Just like the bulk of the iceberg is under water, the climate agenda is largely being implemented outside the UN negotiating processes. Global climate change governance is sometimes described as polycentric: not only are the thousands of national, subnational, regional, municipal and non-state actors implementing the global rules, but they are also offering and testing their own climate policy measures, learning from their own mistakes, sharing experiences and introducing bottom-up rules. They remain independent in their decisions while at the same time closely interacting with one another. National governments and regional administrations launch carbon emission trading schemes, businesses introduce internal carbon prices, and investment institutions increasingly join the fossil fuel divestment movement. Rather than being direct consequences of the Paris Agreement, these measures are necessitated by a range of technological, geopolitical, economic, and environmental factors. It is thanks to them that green the transformation of the world economy has become an irreversible process.

Pros and Cons

Not all the actors are equally prepared to embrace the climate agenda. Some are more eager to do so than others. Almost all the developed countries plus China are interested. They contribute the lion’s share of the world’s green investments, ensure the maximum growth of renewable sources in the energy balance, and develop carbon trading schemes. Businesses in these build their corporate strategies with the climate factor in mind. The enthusiasm of these national actors is explained not only by their climate change-related concerns, but also by the added benefits of switching to low-carbon economies (including the European Union reducing its dependence on fossil fuel imports or China fighting urban air pollution).

There are also climate sceptics. At the national level, these include leading developing countries (such as India, Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico), which are not fundamentally opposed to participating in the green transformation drive, but only for as long as they do not have to give up their key priorities of overcoming poverty (including energy poverty), economic growth and industrialization. Another group of sceptics comprises countries where green transformation is fraught with significant risks to their economic model, which is centred around extracting and exporting fossil fuels. These include Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In fact, the polycentric model implies that low-carbon development is not just the concern of national governments. In fact, national governments could be seen as taking the back seat here. At the national level, the green agenda enjoys the support of a broad range of political parties (which often represent a significant proportion of the middle class in developed countries), companies representing the green economy (for example, renewable energy) and innovative sectors, non-governmental environmentalist organizations, many banks and financial corporations, individual regional and municipal administrations, and universities and research centres. Many of these actors are driven by climate change concerns, while others are guided by commercial or political interests.

At the same time, each country has actors who stand to lose from green transformation and who thus oppose it. These include coal producers, oil- and gas- companies, corporations operating in traditionally carbon-intensive sectors, administrations of regions in which such businesses deploy their production facilities and create jobs, significant portions of people residing in these regions or countries, and the political forces representing them. The reason for these actors’ scepticism is quite simple: green transformation either destroys their businesses or runs counter to other priorities of their social or economic development.

Current Balance of Forces

The pace of green transformation will largely depend on how the balance of forces between these two groups of actors will change. The group of “enthusiasts” has expanded substantially in the past several decades and will continue to consolidate its positions as the effects of climate change worsen and the costs of introducing low-carbon technologies and disseminating green values decrease as incomes increase around the world.

It should be noted that the efforts of the “enthusiasts” are far from enough to keep temperatures at 2°C above the pre-industrial level. In fact, green transformation is facing increased risks as inequality in developed countries deepens. One example of this is the situation in the United States, where the election of Donald Trump as president slowed down the country’s low-carbon development, although did not throttle it altogether. Also illustrative of the trends are the yellow vest protests in France, which were prompted by a hike in fossil fuel taxes.

Yet green transformation continues. The polycentric model, in which the rules are set at the lower levels and promoted upwards, gives actors who are interested in cutting emissions numerous opportunities to transform their regulatory practices into international standards. For example, Western companies require their partners, including raw-material suppliers, to use green management practices (such as estimating the carbon footprint of products or disclosing information about emissions). Enthusiastic businesses initiate the introduction of industry standards by forming coalitions and promoting their “grassroots” initiatives all the way to the top. One example of this can be seen in the aviation sector, where an International Civil Aviation Organization-wide agreement has been reached on the introduction of an industry-wide emissions control system from 2021. Another example is the 2018 roadmap adopted by the International Maritime Organization. Its main goal is to cut emissions by 50 per cent compared to the 2008 level by the year 2050.

Companies operating in countries that enforce carbon trading schemes, particularly those businesses that introduce internal carbon prices, are worried that they may be losing to foreign competitors which, they believe, are engaged in climate dumping. Many of these businesses are requesting their national governments to introduce carbon duties against products originating in countries that do not practice carbon trading. The idea has recently been supported by certain politicians, including President of France Emmanuel Macron. If implemented, this innovation in the low-carbon agenda is set to change the landscape of global trade, just like it has changed the global energy sector over the past decade.

The green transformation of the world economy is irreversible. It is not defined by the Paris Agreement, nor by whether Russia ratifies it, nor even by whether the United States chooses to withdraw from it altogether. The rules of green transformation are set from the bottom up, and the key part here is played by those actors who are most interested in cutting their emissions. Russian business, just like the Russian government, has virtually no involvement in drafting these rules. This can hardly be described as a wise approach, given that the Russian economy primarily specializes in fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industrial production, to which the consequences of green transformation are of critical significance. Many representatives of the Russian political elite and business circles remain sceptical about the very problem of climate change and continue to question its man-made nature. That this view contradicts scientific evidence is beside the point here – it is not a question of faith. Gone are the times when nations and businesses could largely neglect the issues of climate change, low-carbon development and green technologies. There is simply no going back.

First published in our partner RIAC

PhD in Economics, Associate Professor of the World Economy Department, Academic Head of the World Economy Undergraduate Program at HSE- University, RIAC expert

Green Planet

The European Green Deal: Our new growth strategy

Ursula von der Leyen

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Do we, humans, want to continue living well and safely on this planet? Humanity faces an existential threat – the whole world is beginning to see. Forests burn from America to Australia. Deserts are advancing across Africa and Asia. Rising sea levels threaten our European cities as well as Pacific islands. Mankind has seen such phenomena before, but never at this speed.

Science tells us that we can still stop this epidemic, but we are running out of time. The new European Commission is wasting no time. Today, less than two weeks into our mandate, we present our roadmap for a European Green Deal.

Our goal is to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, slowing down global warming and mitigating its effects. This is a task for our generation and the next, but change must begin right now – and we know we can do it.

The European Green Deal that we present today is Europe’s new growth strategy. It will cut emissions while also creating jobs and improving our quality of life.
It is the green thread that will run through all our policies – from transport to taxation, from food to farming, from industry to infrastructure. With our Green Deal we want to invest in clean energy and extend emission trading, but we will also boost the circular economy and preserve Europe’s biodiversity.

The European Green Deal is not just a necessity: it will be a driver of new economic opportunities. Many European firms are already going green. They are cutting their carbon footprint and discovering the clean technologies. They understand that there are planetary boundaries: European companies of all sizes understand that everyone has to take care of our common home. They also know that if they discover the sustainable solutions of tomorrow, this will give them first mover advantage.

What businesses and change-makers need from us is easy access to financing. To pull this off, we will deliver a Sustainable Europe Investment Plan.  It will support one trillion euros of investment over the next decade. We will work hand in hand with the European Investment Bank, Europe’s climate bank.

Next March, we will propose the first-ever European Climate Law to chart the way ahead and make it irreversible: investors, innovators and entrepreneurs need clear rules to plan their long-term investments.

While we will promote transformation in how we produce and consume, live and work, we must also protect and accompany those who risk being hit harder by such change. This transition must work for all or it will not work at all. I will propose to set up a Just Transition Fund – and I want it to mobilise, together with the leverage of the European Investment Bank and private money, one hundred billion euros in investment over the next seven years. We will make sure that we help those European regions who will have to take a bigger step, so that we leave no one behind.

Across Europe, people young and old are not only asking for climate action. They are already changing their lifestyle: think of the commuters who take the bike or public transport, parents who choose reusable diapers, companies that renounce single-use plastics and bring sustainable alternatives to the market. Many of us are part of this European and global movement for climate.

Nine European citizens out of ten ask for decisive climate action. Our children rely on us. Europeans want their Union to act at home and lead abroad. In these very days, the whole world has gathered in Madrid for the United Nations’ conference on climate, to discuss collective action against global warming.

The European Green Deal is Europe’s response to our people’s call. It is a deal by Europe, for Europe and a contribution for a better world. Every European can be part of the change.

This article by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen was published on the occasion of presentation of the European Green Deal.

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Green Planet

Earth in Extremis While Trump Plays Ostrich

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Authors: Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

Storms are savaging East Africa where rainfall in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania is now over 300 mm (about a foot) higher than the 30-year mean tallied since 1981.  The subsequent flooding and landslides have affected 2.8 million people displacing many and reportedly killing 300 according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Thousands of miles away at the other end of the Indian ocean, there is extreme dry heat across Australia with an 80 percent chance of exceeding the median maximum temperature for the October-February summer period.  It has led to an early start to the bushfire season as about 140 are already raging in New South Wales.  Among the worst is a vast and so far uncontrollable fire about 40 miles outside Sydney, with evacuation warnings along its perimeter.

The cause of such extreme weather at the two ends of the Indian Ocean is described by weather scientists as the dipole effect — a sea surface temperature difference between the Arabian Sea western end and the south of Indonesia eastern end.  A positive dipole means warmer ocean temperatures in the west end and cooler in the east.  A negative dipole is the opposite; and a neutral dipole, means even temperatures and normal weather in the adjacent land areas. 

This year’s warmer Indian Ocean temperatures in the western section have led to more storms and cooler, much wetter weather in East Africa, while cool waters pooling off Indonesia mean dry weather, causing extreme heat in Australia.  At a 2C temperature difference, this positive dipole is one of the strongest Indian Ocean dipoles on record.  Such a rare event occurring once in about 17 years in the past is now expected once in 6 years.  Why?  The culprit is climate change.

It projects a future of more frequent, more extreme weather unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions and begin to eliminate the record high CO2 levels already in the atmosphere.

The rest of the world is not immune from extreme weather events.  In a historic flood not too long ago this year, Venice’s iconic St. Mark’s square lay hip-deep in water threatening the frescoes in the church itself.  And in the US, coastal flooding on the east coast has been featured by the New York Times (As Sea Levels Rise, So Do Ghost Forests, October 8, 2019).  The ‘ghost forests’ refer to trees in coastal areas dying off due to frequent incursions of saltwater; it kills them from the roots up. 

An excellent estimate of coastal flooding on the East and Gulf coasts, Encroaching Tides, was prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists a five years ago.  Sober reading, the report’s prognosis of coastal inundation and sea level rise over the next three decades is of concern to communities from Maine to Texas.  Adaptation to new norms, protective sea walls, economic consequences, the responsibilities of Municipalities, States and the Federal Government, and a retreat from heavily impacted areas are the conclusions.  Is anybody listening?

The US is also not immune from fires.  California’s Kincade fire lasting two weeks through November 6 this year burnt almost 78,000 acres.  The largest 2019 wildfire in the state, it was the largest ever for Sonoma county — evacuation orders and warnings covered almost everyone living in it.  For the first eleven months of 2019 there have been 46,706 wildfires compared to 47,853 for all of 2018.  Blame the downslope Santa Ana winds for fanning them. 

If such is the state of our earth in extremis, COP25 the UN Climate Change Conference, is endeavoring to mitigate the major cause:  climate change.  It concludes in Madrid, Spain this week (Dec 13) having been displaced from Chile due to riots by an unhappy populace.  And celebrity climate activist Greta Thunberg was obliged to hitch a yacht ride back across the Atlantic arriving just in time to demonstrate.  Everything helps.

COP25’s ambitious aim is to up the ante from the 2C temperature rise limit of the Paris agreement, adopted by COP24 last year in Poland, to only 1.5C.  A laudable aim perhaps, yet the worst polluters since the industrial revolution are comfortably ensconced, enjoying their wealth, without bearing a heavier burden — in the case of the US very little as Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris agreement.  Indeed a vexing state of affairs for the world when major players shirk their responsibilities. 

Authors’ Note:  This article first appeared on Commondreams.org

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Green Planet

Thanksgiving Also Means Giving Thanks for Our Planet

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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It is Thanksgiving holiday in the US.  The Europeans do not celebrate Thanksgiving and the European Parliament has held an election.  It has chosen former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen as the new President of the European Commission.  Hailing from a political family of conservatives — her father narrowly lost a party leadership election to Franz Josef Strauss — she is the first woman to hold the EU’s top executive job.

Conservative or not, there is unanimity in the EU about climate change, and how the EU has to lead the transition to a healthier planet by planning the necessary upgrading of its social market economy.

If the Europeans are increasingly aware of the environmental challenges ahead, the UN Environment Programme has just issued its flagship Emissions Gap Report.  As one might surmise, the ‘gap’ refers to the difference between what the world is doing to tackle climate change and what it needs to do to limit temperature increase to 1.5C.  Our present ambitions of structural change from a fossil fuel economy is forecast in the report to lead to a catastrophic 3.2C rise.

Present California fires and coastal flooding of the eastern seaboard from the Carolinas down to Florida are just the top of the iceberg as are the European floods in Spain, Italy and France — and the temperature rise so far is a single degree Celsius.

The window to act is closing rapidly.  As the UN report clarifies in stark terms, emissions will have to peak by 2020 to limit global warming to 1.5C without affecting economic growth.  It turns out that of the 43 developed and emerging economies, all with the sole exception of Turkey will have peaked their emissions by 2020.  Be 2030, 57 countries will have peaked.  That is the good news.

By far the greatest emitters are China, the US, and then India and the EU.  Together they account for 56 percent of greenhouse gasses emitted over the last decade.  These therefore bear a heavy responsibility.

The bad news is that while these and other emitters have pledged to follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement — except for the US because Trump withdrew from it — it is not enough.  According to the UN report, their efforts will still result in a 3.2C rise by century’s end to devastating effect.

It is logical then that efforts have to be intensified, and countries need to be more ambitious in their goals.  A focus on innovation and domestic policies to encourage non-fossil fuel power generation would be clearly to their advantage.  For example, energy produced from solar panels has soared from 50 Gigawatts in 2010 to 400 GW in 2015 with an expectation of 450+ GW by 2020.

The strong message of the report is for all sectors and their principals — national, state and local governments, mayors, corporations, their executives, civil society and civic leaders — to come together and act in concert if they are to avert a problem affecting our common home before it is too late.  It is one way of giving thanks for what we have.  The last five years have already been the warmest on record, the future can be expected to be worse if we do not act.

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