“Go and explain to developing countries why they should continue living in poverty and not be like Sweden”, “No one has explained Greta that the modern world is complex and different and… people in Africa or in many Asian countries want to live at the same wealth level as in Sweden”. These are two of the several statements Russian president Vladimir Putin made in criticism of Greta Thunberg’s UN speech while he spoke during an energy conference last year. But why is the situation that the Russian president is referring to, so complex? And why is that the world leaders who are failing to tackle climate change are now trying to tell the world that it is not just about climate but also geopolitics? This piece tries to delve into the inevitable dilemma that is emerging in the sphere of climate change mitigation and the geopolitics that has always been the one of the topmost priorities for the nations around the globe.
The Present State
Historically, the industries and the global economy has been reliant on fossil fuels, resulting in the anthropogenic climate changes that we are witnessing today. At present, geopolitics is at the center of the struggle for mitigation of the climate change phenomenon. This has led to a variety of responses from different nations. Some are trying to postpone the responsibility, some are trying to deny, and some are trying to spearhead the fight against the problem. However, the issue of climate change is not one that can be solved by one or a subset of nations working in isolation. It remains to be seen how the results of climate change as well as the struggle for mitigation will impact the ground reality for the populations, as it is widely expected that the effects on different nations will be to different extents. Some are set to be hit harder than others, and some are going to be hit even if they have not done anything to contribute to the problem. In this background, many of the concerns about the technological manipulation of nature, environmental destruction, North-South relations, sustainable development, conflict and resource wars have returned to prominence in recent years in the increasingly intense debate about climate change. In this piece we a look at some of the major themes in the geopolitical landscape today related to climate change and climate change mitigation activities.
Russia and Saudi Arabia are two of the several examples of nations which depend on energy commodities export for most part of their revenue. They are also the best examples of nations with vastly established fossil fuel production and processing infrastructure. Accordingly, they face different geopolitical challenges than others in terms of their climate mitigation policy adoptions. Nations like Russia and Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar, Iran, Venezuela, and UAE depend on exports of oil and gas to developing and emerging economies like China and India. However, an increasing emphasis in these developing economies for a transition towards renewable energy sources has been creating unrest in the oil, gas as well as coal export dependent nations. In case of Russia, another issue, in form of permafrost thawing has been emerging since the last few years as a big worry threatening its infrastructural facilities in Far East region as well as the Siberian region. Last year Russia witnessed several oil spills due to weakening infrastructure in its facilities. However, this issue is dwarfed due to the fact that infrastructure can be upgraded, but if the demand for oil and gas reduces in the global markets due to a renewable energy transition, then the vast infrastructures will become loss generating assets.
In Gulf countries, the narratives of collapse and chaos in a post-oil world has taken over most policy makers’ imagination. According to some predictions, over the next 50 years, these countries could be facing a twin issue of increasing strain on societies and economies due to climate change on one hand and increasing shortage of funds on the other, either due to the decreasing exports and demand, or due to simply less production due to waning stores of energy. Moreover, emergence on alternative sources like shale oil in US and oil and gas in Central Asian region can also lead to increased strain in these countries. This has led to new geopolitical conditions becoming possible for the Gulf region which has for long been dependent on a US hegemony in the region for overall security framework. A receding US interest can witness an increasing interest of other powers like China and Russia.
Moving to the developing world, economies like India, Brazil and even China have at various times expressed an unwillingness to concede mitigation of emissions of greenhouse gases and pointed towards their right to economic and industrial development, world equity and issues. This stance has attracted criticism from the developed world who see this struggle against climate change as a journey in which every nation needs to stand in unity. However, on one hand where concepts like ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities’ has emerged in climate action frameworks, countries like India have showed that they are ready to lead in the action for climate change mitigation by implementing policies to work towards a transition to renewable energy. This stance although is also influenced by the fact that India is forced to import most of its fossil fuel needs from other countries which exists as a big burden to its economy. By decreasing its reliance on energy imports, India can look towards following a more independent course in the geopolitical order. As seen in the collapse of Iran-US relations which led to India being forced to abandon its oil imports from Iran, a situation where India is not dependent on oil itself, stands to be a big win. Further, initiatives like the International Solar Alliance have helped India to cultivate India’s image as a responsible global actor, at par with other like the European Union who has been using climate change activism as an element of its foreign policy to retain command over the global climate change policy agenda and thus assert not only regional, but global influence.
Talking about the global powers, US and China are undoubtedly the two biggest players in the world today when it comes to geopolitics, as well as emissions. In US, about half of electricity is generated through coal power plants as the nation has abundant coal deposits. The last four years under President Trump witnessed US detaching itself from major climate change action frameworks like the Paris Agreement based on the reasoning that any policies which have a chance to curb economy growth will have a disastrous effect on the lives of American citizens as well as national security. On the other hand, China, which has for some time now been the biggest greenhouse gas emitter, has now been working towards becoming the leader in sphere of sustainable energy. Chinese president Xi Jinping at the last year’s United Nations General Assembly made the promise that China will become carbon neutral by 2060. According to scholars of the field, through this stance, China not only wants to enhance its geopolitical position as a main partner to EU for future, but also wants to take away attention from its human rights abuses, and aggressive behavior. This phenomenon needs to be understood in the light of the fact that today almost all mining, production and processing of rare earth elements, which are essential for the production of renewable energy infrastructure like solar panels, takes place in China. Thus, providing not only an upper hand to China as an economic power but also as a great geopolitical power in sustainable energy.
Not all countries however face the dilemma of effects of slowing economy in case they go for transition to renewable energy or adopt policies that mitigate emissions. The poorest of the countries stand to go bankrupt and loose relevance due to geopolitics of climate action in case the world decides to transition fast to renewable energy. These are the poor countries of Africa which have recently started establishing their oil production and now almost completely depend on it. As mentioned by Russian president Putin, these are the economies which look towards economic development based on their energy stores. They however have massive potential for renewable energy extraction too. But this potential need massive amounts of investment in infrastructure to realize, an element that these economies do not possess. Further, as the oil produced by these satisfy the needs of the developing and emerging economies, most of their buyer nations will see no benefit in trying to aid the African economies to substantially create their supplier’s renewable energy sector.
Similar is the case of the Central Asia region where the nations depend on extractive industries of oil, coal, and gas. Both climate impact as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation in this region is projected to heighten geopolitical tension. Not only are the foreign direct investments in the region low at present, but the existing investments do also not prioritize resilient and sustainable development and is related mostly in sector of non-renewable energy resource extraction. The geopolitics of this region is connected in more than one way with the issue of climate change. The region is prone to water and energy shortages. Whereas carbon rich Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan extract and use oil, gas and coal for their energy production, other nations in the region- Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which have lower GDP per capita uses clean hydro energy. Thus an inequality exist as the downstream nations are those which are more reliant on fossil fuels and the upstream nations, although not energy rich, possess ample hydroelectric potential. This inequality is estimated by the scholars to create strains in the region which can spill over in the rest of Asia.
It might seem like the fossil-fuels based energy export reliant nations are set to lose the most in the coming future as the world starts looking for ways to transition towards clean fuel and energy in the coming years. However, the oil and gas industry might not be ending anytime soon.
For instance, Nord Stream 2, a planned pipeline through the Baltic Sea, which is expected to transport natural gas over from Siberia to consumers in Europe is being looked upon as a secure and reliable as well as cleaner source of energy for the coming decades. It indeed will replace the coal powered sectors in Europe and help reducing carbon emissions, however, this is also expected to provide Russia a sort of geopolitical push that it has not witnessed in many years now in terms of its relations with Europe, especially since the conflict with Ukraine in 2014. Although, this has changed in recent times as tensions arose with Georgia and the political chaos around Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, who was being seen as a political competitor to President Putin by some in Russia. However, this is not to say that Russia has not been working towards climate change mitigation agenda. In November last year, Russian President Putin signed a decree ordering the Russian government to work towards meeting the 2015 Paris agreement to fight climate change, but stressed that any action must be balanced with the need to ensure strong economic development. This in geopolitical terms can be seen as an attempt to align Russia with the change in presidency in US, where the new president Joe Biden is supposed to be an avid supporter for climate activism and is expected to work towards making US carbon neutral with a long-term plan, in stark contrast to the previous president Donald Trump.
Another geopolitical battle is emerging in the Arctic, where several nations like the US, China and Russia are no vying for dominance. In Arctic, with melting snow, shipping is all set to witness an increase. According to some estimates, if shipping along the Arctic becomes fully accessible, Bering Sea can become an area of contention for US and Russia, as well as China, thus reducing the importance of other choke points and the nations controlling them, like Egypt and Southeast Asia. This phenomenon also exists in line with the argument that if oil ceases to be a central driver of the global economy, many regions like Gulf are set to see their long-standing relations with the western nations like US change.
Climate change related migration, which can result out of several reasons like submergence of islands, droughts due to varying rainfall patterns, stronger hurricanes or storms, or massive flooding of rivers due to higher rate of melting of glaciers that feed them with water, is also becoming a geopolitical contention that the nations are staring at today. The world has witnessed in 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, the extent of chaos, heightened populism, and nationalism, as well as lack of trust in multilateralism and established institutions that can be caused. Even though in this case, the result was not due to underlying climate change related challenges directly, similar effects due to influx of refugees and similar migration patterns can be expected from the regions of changing patterns of rainfall. This leads us to think where the current situation leaves us today for the future.
What does the Future Hold?
For many economies, initial investment cost for renewable energy systems is usually high, resulting unaffordability for many, especially in developing countries. Some others on the other hand, like Malaysia, with some of the highest level of subsidies on fossil fuels result in renewable energy market to remain economically weak and uncompetitive. Similarly, for Australia’s economy, which has for long been reliant on fossil fuel industries to ensure the economic prosperity across the country, it is now becoming an issue of contention which it will need to resolve in order to ensure not its own, but also its neighborhood’s sustainability lying in the Indo-Pacific region as low lying islands which are at the risk of submergence due to climate change related effects.
In today’s world, not only can conflicts related to renewable energy infrastructure lead to stress as seen in case of Central Asian region, but also strain over issues like transfer of technology between developed and developing countries can turn into bigger forms of geopolitical conflicts. It also remains to be seen if the resources like rare-earth metals, which are needed for expansion of cleaner energy platforms will be available according to need of a nation or be made available to the highest buyer and turned into a business. The global order as it stands today between the oil producers and the oil consumers is also set to change as the climate change mitigation policies are adopted resulting from increasingly severe negative effects emerging from the anthropogenic climate change.
Climate Change and its Effects on Europe
If one thinks Putin has become a headache, then the future of Europe under the forecast climate change regime is pneumonia.
According to this scenario, ice melt from Greenland and the Arctic will raise sea levels around Florida. Aside from greater and wider coastal flooding, this change will inhibit the regular Gulf Stream Drift that makes its way across the Atlantic warming northern Europe and ensuring the English climate is even milder. Part of it of course is due to Britain being an island and so enjoying the moderating effects of the sea — again more so because of the Gulf Stream.
This relatively even weather in England has undergone change. More frequent 90F and higher days in summer, once relatively rare, is one symptom — the UK just recorded its highest ever temperature of 104.54F. There have also been heavy rains and flooding notably in December 2020 when a wide belt across the south suffered catastrophic inundation of historic proportions.
Scientists and the UN confirm an increase in the frequency of natural disasters. This includes forest fires, hurricanes or typhoons, excessive rains and floods.
July 14 might be celebrated as Bastille Day and a national holiday in France but in neighboring Belgium it now commemorates the devastating floods in 2021. Heavy rains and the Meuse river overflowing its banks turned streets into canals in the eastern city of Liege. The floods extended to the Netherlands and western Germany, caused by a low pressure system that stalled for two days over the region. Rain falling on soil already soaked by spring rains and overflowing rivers (the Meuse in Belgium and Netherlands, the Rhine and the Ruhr in Germany) devastated the area. At least 243 people lost their lives and property damage was estimated at $12 billion.
If last year was one of floods, this year it’s drought and dry heat and forest fires — temperatures hitting 117 F in Portugal and an estimated 75,000 acres lost to forest fires; also dry as tinder Italy where the river Po, the country’s longest river, has been reduced to a trickle.
England has been subject to a similar pattern, suffering some of the worst flooding in its history last year and now reeling from forest fires. “I’ve fought wildfires for decades. None of it prepared me for the infernos this week,” screams a Guardian (July 22, 2022) headline quoting a firefighter. London fire fighters have just had the busiest day since the Second World War.
When will governments understand that the earth is changing, that natural disasters piling one on top of the other, and that forest fires in Europe, in Australia, in the US and elsewhere plus floods and typhoons etc., are not coincidences?
One hopes it is soon, and we humans learn to moderate damaging behaviors.
The Greater Frequency of Natural Disasters and our Response
While no one can ascribe specific natural catastrophic events to global warming, their frequency appears to have increased. So it is that forest fire seasons have lengthened, and more fires occur more often and of greater intensity.
The current disaster in the news is in the Iberian peninsula and across to southwest France. Almost uncontrollable wildfires have devastated thousands of acres, and one observer pilot flying too close has been killed reports the BBC. The fires in La Teste-de-Buch and south of Bordeaux have destroyed 25,000 acres.
In Portugal, 75,000 acres have been devastated by fires this year. One cause is the dry heat and soaring temperatures, drying out the countryside. They have hit 47C (117F) in Portugal and above 40C (104F) in Spain. Residents have been evacuated from the danger areas and a pet rescue operation is ongoing.
Planes are dropping fire retardant chemicals, and helicopters collect sea water from the coast then return to douse the flames. The high temperatures, the drought and their consequences have not spared neighboring countries.
In Italy, the country’s longest river, the Po, has diminished to a trickle in places and the tinder-dried countryside in its valley is under a state of emergency.
Along other parts of the Mediterranean, the conditions are similar. In Greece, there are fires southeast of Athens about 30 miles away in Feriza; also on the northern coast in the island of Crete where seven villages near Rethymno have been evacuated.
The opposite side of the Mediterranean has not been spared. Fires swept through several provinces in Morocco and one village in the Ksar el-Kebir area was destroyed.
According to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, the earth should respond naturally to ameliorate global warming. Unfortunately, human interventions like cutting down forests have damaged its ability to do so. Is runaway global warming then our future?
The answer has to lie with the same humans, being the only species with the knowledge and faculty to respond to the challenges. The means are available, from CO2 capture to altering our own behavior.
Work on additives (like oil and fats) for cow feed have helped reduce emissions by 18 percent in Australia where almost 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from ruminants. Even more promising has been the addition of seaweed which when mixed in small quantities (3 percent) to the diet have reduced their emissions by 80 percent.
In the meantime, we have to change our ways: Growing our own vegetables — delicious and easy as they grow themselves with minimum care … and have you tried ripe tomatoes fresh from a vine? Even easier to buy now as plants are sold at food supermarkets.
Eating less meat, walking or cycling instead of driving for short trips and so on. It is easy and just a matter of habit. In the end, it is up to us as to the kind of earth we want to leave behind for our children and grandchildren.
Interviewing Fabio Domenico Vescovi – Agronomist and Earth Observation Specialist
Fabio Domenico Vescovi is an Agronomist & Earth Observation Specialist. He is currently Senior Data Scientist & Technical Lead at Cropin. Fabio develops applications of satellite technologies in tropical countries for the insurance sector (drought and floods). He studies crop biophysical parameters to inform an index-based insurance system and develops AI algorithms based on DataCube and Machine Learning. Fabio has had an international career spanning Germany (Bonn University), Italy (OHB) and UK (Airbus). He has also been deeply involved in various African countries, working with different stakeholders to enable easier data-based access to micro-credit and micro-insurance for farmers. Fabio has a PhD in remote sensing applications in agriculture.
You are using satellite data to track droughts and floods to grow crops more efficiently. Which other companies are doing this globally?
At Cropin we use satellite data along with other types of data such as weather data, soil information, agro-climatic conditions, seed genetics, global crop sowing and harvesting patterns, agronomics etc. to create AI models that bring predictive intelligence to agriculture and make it more efficient, productive, and sustainable.
There are a host of organisations in this sector offering services which target this challenging area. We believe that the challenges faced by this sector are many and complex and not one player can solve them all and thus a thriving global agritech ecosystem is a great enabler to truly accelerate progress of the agriculture ecosystem. The industry itself is at an evolving phase and technology adoption in the global agriculture arena is still a long way to go. Arable land across the planet is estimated to be 1.4 billion hectares and in terms of being able to digitize and impact the planet’s agri-value chain, the agritech sector is still miles away, but we sure are headed in the right direction.
Why are you passionate about the agriculture sector? What has inspired you to be a part of this field?
My family and ancestors were all Italian farmers and despite growing up in an urban environment I always had a passion for environmental sciences, agriculture and the socio-cultural connections between our environment, our people and myself.
Tech-enabled services for farmers can be unaffordable for many farmers in a country like India. Do you think India can implement them at a mass scale?
We are very aware that farmers will face challenges to afford high-end digital and predictive intelligence solutions which brings a meaningful difference to their lives. This is the reason Cropin works via a B2B and B2G business model. We work with large food processing companies, food retailers, seed and agri-input manufacturers, agri-lenders and insurers, governments and development agencies who in turn work with huge numbers of farmers and large areas of farmlands. So, the cost of the technology is borne by our customers and the benefits of higher efficiency, improved yields, lower inputs costs and better sustainable operations benefit all the stakeholders including the farmer. Another important benefit of our B2B and B2G approach is that it also helps us create impact at scale in global agriculture vis-à-vis working directly with individual farmers.
What is Carbon farming? Which countries is it being implemented in?
Carbon farming is a new term but an old practice. I think that people practiced Carbon farming since the time agriculture was invented. One of the simplest examples of Carbon farming is the circulation of organic matter in the form of manure from the stall to the soil. In turn the soil provides food to the animals in the stall. There were many similar Carbon cycles and sub-cycles across people and cultures, where organic matter was recirculated and eventually regenerated.
Nowadays this circularity in Carbon has been slowly destroyed by a mixture of industrial and commercial processes, which though very productive, are not sustainable for the environment. Just to give you a negative example, Europe is a strong importer of soya, sunflower, and cereals from Brazil, which is now clearing their forests and depleting their soil organic matter to farm these products. However, there is no process in place to return that Carbon from Europe to Brazil to the soil from where it was taken. Only money is returning. We were able to put in place a system which is perfect economically but unsustainable ecologically. Like in a bank, what the soil gives us is a loan, not a donation.
How can AI be used for sustainable agriculture?
Digitization and AI can be leveraged at scale to increase efficiency, productivity, and sustainability in farming. To leverage AI for farming, Cropin undertakes the complex process of ‘agri asset computation’ which brings together satellite imagery, historical and forecasted weather data, soil information, agro-climatic conditions, seed genetics, global crop sowing and harvesting patterns, agronomics, and other farming insights all under one umbrella to build knowledge graphs for hundreds of crops and crop varieties across the globe. This data is then used to build AI models for any farm plot, region, country, or crop in the shortest possible time. This provides insights and recommendations on various aspects of farming operations – from selecting the right crops and seeds, the right time for sowing and harvesting, the optimal use of water resources and adoption of the right farming practices etc. All this enables much more sustainable farming.
At Cropin, we have already computed 0.2 billion acres of farmland in 12 countries, and we have an ambitious target to compute and build predictive intelligence “on-tap” for 1/3rd of the planet’s cultivable lands by 2025. By doing this, we are helping solve planet scale challenges such as food security, environmental sustainability and better livelihoods for farmers.
How can farmers be empowered globally?
Farmers are supposed to be the most empowered category in the world, they should dominate even kings, like for example in the American and French revolutions. But the world has become oblivious to this. People forget about farming and the role of farmers, especially the small holder ones. Nowadays if you ask a European child: “Where does this milk come from?”, the answer you may get is: “Well, from the fridge!”. So, milk is perceived as an industrial product and this is ironically not wrong, because the number of industrial processes occurring on every drop of milk from milking to drinking is overwhelming. So, behind a common farm or diary product, we do not see a natural environment anymore but rather a complex system of industrial procedures.
Farmers can be taken onboard of the political arena only if they speak the language of marketing, behave like industrial entrepreneurs, have the knowledge of engineers, act like politicians and talk like salesmen! How can we figure out the farmers role in a complex society which forgotten the importance of farming?
Even in climate change, the only ones empowered to make a significant change on millions of hectares are the small holder farmers. They can play a key role in agro-forestry and Carbon sequestration, much more than any other industrial process. But they are not aware of the processes and of their potentials, and neither is society. We need an educational process involving both agricultural and industrial sectors to raise awareness on their potential.
Finally, a personal question – Is doing a PhD and life as a researcher fulfilling?
It is, but I must accept that the academic context of a PhD and the lifestyle of a researcher moving across various countries to attend congresses are so different than the cultural context and environmental conditions of a farm. I can’t simply mix the lifestyle of a farmer and that of a researcher. Anyway, whenever I try to do so or I spend some few days in a family-run farm in an African context (e.g. currently I am writing from a small holder farm in Mwingi, a rural area in central Kenya, not even completely electrified) then I get the best results of my research and I grow in the knowledge of how the farming world really is, when we speak about farming, even Carbon faming. My lovely farmers and I dream to raise our common voice and bring awareness on the real role which farming and research can play together: my PhD is not a barrier, it is the way to open my mind to their culture and learn more.
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