Blog: “‘From Covid to COP” – Charlie Woods, SUII
“COP26… can be the watershed in a new, more inclusive and sustainable global economic system….so that every decision takes climate change into account” – Mark Carney
As we emerge from the pandemic COP 26 will focus Scotland and the wider world’s attention on what needs to be done by whom to achieve net-zero ambitions. We know the challenge is massive, but it’s sometimes difficult to get your head round how big and in what time frame and how it might be achieved and what the associated opportunities might be.
A speech by Adair Turner towards the end of last year provides a helpful big picture summary of where we are and where we need to get to and addresses what the balance will be between technological solutions and changes in behaviour needed to get there.
Turner concludes that in the longer term (30-40 years) energy produced from renewables such as solar and wind and stored in a number of different ways (batteries, hydrogen etc.) will be cheap, can be produced within planetary boundaries and will be relatively inexhaustible. There will be a lot of challenging issues around the move to this new renewable energy environment but it should be sustainable – he is even relatively sanguine about the mineral requirements for batteries etc. Although he does recognise that the possibility of ‘rebound effect’ (where price reductions lead to big increases in demand) could have a big impact on resource use.
Despite the potentially positive long term energy picture, the shorter term challenges of decoupling ourselves from fossil fuels, quickly enough to prevent damaging rises in temperature and in a socially just way will be extremely challenging and will require significant, speedy changes in behaviour. This is largely because we have left the transition so late. Individual changes in behaviour will make a contribution, but system changes will be required as well, particularly if a just transition is to be achieved which doesn’t disadvantaged less well developed people and places.
More broadly he also draws attention to the short and longer term challenges of keeping other forms of consumption and production within planetary boundaries, notably food and textiles. This will require dramatic behavioural change in the short term particularly as regards diet.
At the root of the food problem is the need for photosynthesis to convert the sun’s energy into energy we can consume and the huge amount of land and water it requires along with the carbon dioxide it generates using current technology. This applies to plant based diets and is even worse if the plants are converted via animals before being consumed by humans.
Technology offers the potential of making a contribution to addressing this issue – from relatively modest changes in production through to more radical ideas such as vertically controlled food factories and synthetic meat and carbohydrates, using much less land and water. But again timing is crucial, these possibilities are unlikely to be developed and deployed at sufficient scale in the foreseeable future to prevent ecological disaster.
Turner’s analysis leads him to four implications for action:
- Build a zero carbon electricity based energy and associated economic system as fast as possible and highlight its potential to improve wellbeing
- Get carbon emissions and material use down fast by making responsible consumption and production choices now
- Develop radical new food production technologies as fast as possible to help stay within planetary boundaries
- Motivate governments, companies and individuals to ensure that finance flows to eco-system restoration and less destructive land use practices
Beginning to tackle the overuse of materials could be the beginning of what might be termed a more ecological economics, which sees human activity embedded in nature, were no more is extracted than can be regenerated and waste is kept to a level that can be safely absorbed – the essence of a more circular economy. The recently published Dasgupta Review of the Economics of Biodiversity is an important contribution to better understanding how economic systems can be genuinely sustainable.
In a recent FT article former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney (the UN’s special envoy on climate action and finance) highlights the enormous and rapid structural change that climate transition will require, which has been exacerbated by the Covid crisis. To ensure that the change needed will be as equitable as possible and command widespread support, he recommends that it is based on four principles:
- Resilience – Building on the stress tests used since the financial crisis to develop the capacity to act as shock absorbers for future crises, this will range from key infrastructure to including measures to empowering people to participate fully in the economy.
- Solidarity – Involving measures to ensure everyone’s real earnings and prospects grow over their lifetimes. This will require new approaches to taxation to reduce carbon and favour people over machines and software. It will also involve a radical rethink of life-long learning and its integration with the social welfare system.
- Connectivity – In addition to technology that increasingly links the world, there is a need for greater international co-operation to reconcile democratic accountability with binding rules to govern the global flow of trade, capital and ideas. Particular attention should be paid to enabling smaller firms to participate more easily in international markets to develop “a form of artisanal globalisation that can drive inclusive growth”.
- Sustainability – there is a need for a large-scale, high-integrity carbon offset market, which can stimulate significant investment for the developing world along with a finance system that more effectively blends public and private funding for sustainable, inclusive development.
We are going to need to change rapidly if we are to minimise the environmental disaster we face. This will throw up many challenges to our economic system, but it will also generate many opportunities. At EDAS we will be focussing on helping members contribute to building a sustainable future, focused on improving wellbeing and realising the economic development opportunities arising from the necessity of a net-zero transition, in a way that is as inclusive (of people and places) as possible.