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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

Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems

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Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion.  This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th.  The weather service  holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast.  In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.

While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour.  That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.

Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died.  Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton.  The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000.  However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely. 

Following Ida was hurricane Larry.  Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north.  These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists.  Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity.  They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013.  This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.

Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern.  This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes.  Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.

For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard.  Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland.  In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals. 

Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future.  The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals.  It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa.  Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean. 

The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.   

All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon. 

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Green Planet

Human activity the common link between disasters around the world

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Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.

The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.

A consequence of human influence

The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.

Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.

Arctic-Texas link

Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.

An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.

This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.

COVID and the Cyclone

Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.

In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.

When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.

Root causes

The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.

The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.

Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.

The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.

“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”

Solutions also linked

However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.

The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.

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Green Planet

Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution

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Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.

1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment

It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.

Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.

Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.

2) The main causes

 Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.

Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.

Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.

Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.

3) This is an urgent issue

 The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.

On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.

4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector

On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.

Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.

Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.

5)…and it is our responsibility, as well

At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.

Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.

The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.

How clean is your air?

You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.

The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.

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