The Economist wrote in March 2010 that climate change doubters are right when they state that uncertainties are rife in climate science, but they are wrong when they present this as a reason for inaction. Any uncertainty presents risk. In terms of climate change, those risks are well known, even if we cannot know for sure to what extent they will be realized.
However, the ability to analyze those risks and turn them into opportunities is the key to creating a global transformation of the economy. This is the position of Lord Anthony Giddens, who made the keynote address at the World Climate Solutions conference last year. However, Giddens, an economist, a former head of the London School of Economics and member of the Green Growth Council, says there are four general areas where mistakes or inadequacies tend to made in discussing green growth. These are likely stalling real progress, and his thoughts around these inadequacies are summarized as follows.
1) The creation of the low carbon economy
While this is a desired outcome, the fact is, we really don’t know what the low carbon economy will be like, nor do we yet understand the macroeconomics of it. However, what it is not, is a global economy that is structurally the same as today’s, with lots of wind farms, solar power generation and other renewables tagged on. He suggests that this is fragmented thinking, and that we need to think holistically as to how the future economy will be structurally different. We’re not at that point yet.
2) Technology is the answer
Technological advances are needed and demanded, and certain technological breakthroughs will be greatly important in addressing climate change. However, we place too much emphasis on technology as the driver for change. Instead, social, political, and economic innovation must be recognized as even more powerful forces. He suggests these will be achieved through greater public/private partnerships and gives the example of insurance companies and governments working together. This has happened in Bangladesh to create “catastrophe bonds” to address recovery from severe weather events, and it illustrates an “innovative pioneering pathway” to provide both opportunity and risk mitigation.
3) Clean energy will solve our problems
Clean and renewable energy are to be encouraged and generally help with energy security. However, over-focusing on low carbon energy production without dealing with consumption will not get us to lower overall emissions. By way of example, Spain, while investing in low carbon energy production, has nonetheless seen its emissions rise by around 20% since the Kyoto Protocol was signed. This was driven by the predominance of a construction based economy. More broadly, an overall net lowering of emissions has to be a global achievement to be effective, especially in light of the mass transfer of industrial production.
4) The creation of green jobs
Giddens suggests that the notion of green jobs is somewhat incoherent. His example – a bus driver has a greener job than a taxi driver – illustrates that green jobs are relative and nebulous. Too much talk is placed on incremental jobs that green technology will create, without doing a proper analysis of net new jobs. Rather than focus on green job creation, instead we should be considering the transformation of core sectors of industry, where jobs may, or may not, remain the same.
What to do?
These are compelling thoughts, but while Giddens highlights these problem areas, he does not provide a silver bullet solution to address them. Instead he broadly discusses the need for a different map of politics which he calls “Utopian realism”. That requires that we think beyond the world as we see it today, one that is structurally different, yet realistically attainable. The vision will require bi-lateral agreements, regional agreements, and involve businesses, cities and civil societies to create it. Tackling in Kyoto-style global protocols? Not likely. And its going to require, above all, leadership. This is perhaps the weak point. We have yet to see effective leadership that will make a difference at the appropriate scale. So, will we continue to face the potential inaction in truly mitigating the risk of climate change?