It only made sense that we end our semester long climate change adventure visiting some of the most incredible sites provided by Mother Earth, or “Pacha Mama” known as by the Quechua indigenous people of the Andes. After our experiences at COP20 chasing down delegates, collecting and trading business cards, shuffling from meeting to meeting, and escaping the heat (from both inside and outside the plenary) with some gelato, it was exciting to visit ancient sites that climate change could prohibit future generations from enjoying. I considered myself lucky to be able to visit Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, where within the next year the Ministry of Culture in Cusco has decided tourism will be restricted to a certain number of visitors who must be accompanied by an official guide. The ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu is a gold mine for Peru’s tourism industry. Our guide, Hamilton, informed us just the 1Sol fee to use the bathroom generates 6,000 Soles per day.
This tourist attraction is huge part of Peru’s economy and they would never close it, but it is sad to see that years of previous human degradation will restrict future generations to enjoy one of Mother Earth’s marvelous sites. This same concept applies to the Earth’s changing climate, years of environmental degradation caused by previous generations of humans is changing how future generations will be able to live on our shared planet. My experience at COP20 was both optimistic and skeptic. While it is optimistic to see progress in negotiations and progress in the use of sustainable technology, there is still a long way to go until we reach a global participation and agreement. Every year there is this extravagant event where representatives from each party meet to discuss what needs to be done to save the planet. However, much of this event is excessive and wasteful, which makes it seem counterproductive. But I am certainly invested in following the road to Paris and beyond.
Within the Mosaic courses, we focus mainly on the UNFCCC and, thus, almost exclusively on CO2 emissions. However, in ECON-222: Environmental Economics, a group of us from the Mosaic had the opportunity to research and learn about another greenhouse gas, one that is far more potent and dangerous to climate change: methane. CH4 is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted through anthropocentric sources, has an atmospheric lifetime of twelve years, and has a one hundred-year global warming potential twenty-one times that of carbon dioxide. So, while it only accounts for fourteen percent of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, it is still a critical factor in the climate change realm; unregulated at its source, and methane emissions could undermine the work that the UNFCCC facilitates on carbon-dioxide emissions.
We focused on three main sources of methane emissions (agricultural sources, the oil and natural gas industry, and landfills) and employed various tools of economic analysis that we had learned previously in the course to critically analyze various policy options and make a recommendation as to which we believe is the most effective and cost-efficient. My main focus was on the oil and natural gas industry, which accounts 37 percent of global methane emissions. Natural gas is seen as a transition fuel away from fossil fuels for many economies that is both cleaner and readily available; while it may be cleaner in terms of carbon-intensity, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better for the environment, as between 80 to 90 percent of each cubic feet of natural gas is comprised of methane. Thus, most of the emissions in the industry come from natural gas processes, which is fraught with inefficiencies and opportunities for emissions to escape into the atmosphere. Thus, many of the major policy suggestions I evaluated in this research project focused on increasing efficiency along the natural gas supply chain. These policies further fell under two umbrella categories under increasing efficiency, one being the retrofitting and upgrading of existing equipment along the supply chain to mitigate emissions escaping in the first place, and the second being the capture and sale of those emissions that do escape. Policies under both umbrella categories are currently being employed, and have proven to be cost-effective in both achieving emissions reductions and increasing revenues for the industry as a whole
This project offered an exceptional opportunity to complement what I’ve learned in the Mosaic classes and to delve into the intricacies of my chosen field of study (economics) and how it relates to climate change generally.
For more information on methane emissions specifically in the US, visit the EPA website.
I came across a recent collection of photos by aerial photographer Bernhard Lang. This collection is that of an aerial shoot above the Hambach Mine in Germany. This lignite open pit mine is the deepest (in relation to sea-level) on the planet, being 931 feet below sea-level. Currently the mine is about 35 square kilometers large with a planned ending size of 85 square kilometers, roughly the size of Manhattan. All of this in a country that plans to be 80% renewable by 2050 and currently is the solar energy capital of the world. Some argue this is a result of the shutting down of nuclear facilities after Fukushima, as well as a result of the way emissions trading schemes are set up in the EU. The mine is still open and churning out coal everyday. Lang has done an excellent job of showcasing it, much in the way Balog has represented glacial melt and the impacts of anthropogenic global warming. This is not the first time Lang has been up in the air, attempting to capture the scale at which our society operates, much of his aerial work has taken on an environmental twist. As I find more artists looking to use their talents and passion to raise awareness and enact change, I wonder what else we might see in the coming decades.
This past weekend I went to Lehigh University for a short course with ExxonMobil on basin analysis. I went to learn about ExxonMobil and how they go about finding hydrocarbons. While I barley scratched the surface of how our species has gone about extracting fuels from the ground, I learned a great deal about what geologic conditions are needed to produce oil and gas. It was fascinating to hear them talk about extracting resources to sell on the market.
While ExxonMobil is based in Texas, they talked about several markets they are currently pushing into; Russia, Kirgizstan, Brazil, Africa, and Mexico. They truly are a global energy exploration company when it comes to gas and oil. They seek business opportunities all over the world and employ the best geoscientists to find fossil fuels.
When asked about how they are going to be adapting as an industry to climate regulations, they strive for making their emissions less per BTU, that is to say they want to be more efficient with their fuels. In the 1970s ExxonMobil explored using renewable energies as a branch of operations, but they came to the quick conclusion that it was not what they are best at. They were not able to make renewable as economically successful, so they gave it up to do what they are best known for, oil and gas explorations and extraction.
When asked about how they would adapt to the world with carbon emissions limits, they spoke about carbon sequestration. They are currently working on a project in the Moxa Arch in Wyoming, read more about it here. This project would allow them to reduce the corporations overall emissions if they needed to under a scenario with carbon limiting legislation. While they are not currently injecting anthropogenic carbon dioxide, they are proving the concepts by injecting hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. If they are able to successful sequester the carbon, this could lead to the continuation of ExxonMobil as a fossil fuel exploration company under carbon restrictive legislation.
Here is an article about their policy stances towards climate change
Here is an article about how they are mitigating GHG emissions
Climate change does pose significant threats to prospects for sustainable development. It impacts our environmental, economic, and social development. With climate change in our radar, our ability to meet basic needs to sustain life would be difficult. The behavior that we are carrying out currently may allow or disallow our use of planet earth by future generations. It is also very difficult for developing countries to develop sustainably due to lack of government policy, finance and adaption plans.
In “Renewable Revolution: Low-Carbon Energy by 2030” by Janet L. Sawin and William R. Moomaw, the focus is on sustainable development but by the reduction of energy usage by using it more efficiently and using mostly renewable energy resources. “Humanity can prevent catastrophic climate change if we act now and adopt policies that reduce energy usage by unleashing the full potential of energy efficiency in concert with renewable energy resources” (Sawin & Moomsaw, 2009). This is a valid statement because climate change is first and foremost a challenge to development. Climate change is not just a pollution problem. In Sawin and Moomsaw’s article, they also stated that “A combination of political will and the right policies can get the world on track to mitigate climate change in the near term while also meeting demand for energy services, providing energy access for the world’s poorest, boosting the global economy, bolstering energy security, and improving the natural environment and human health” (Sawin & Moomsaw, 2009).
According to “Integrating Development in Climate Change: A Framework Policy Discussion Paper on Key Elements for the Development of the Post-2012 Global Climate Policy Regime” by the South Centre, global cooperation to reduce developed countries’ climate footprint and support developing countries’ adoption and implementation of low carbon sustainable development methods should be a priority. In context of the climate change negotiations, there is hope for developing countries to form policies that would promote and aid sustainable development objectives. The South Centre proposed that the post-2012 framework should support the creation of an international economic system that supports and promotes economic development of developing countries (South Centre, 2007). However, certain aspects need to be accounted for such as the need of flexibility to properly determine what policies are needed for development as well as what is best for adaptation to climate change. Policy parameters for the design of economic and environmental policies that were projected by the South Centre are “…the development policy space for developing countries in the areas of tariff and non-tariff barriers, intellectual property, investment promotion and regulation, regional integration, industrial policy, and finance regulation; and the environment and carbon space to increase GHG emissions, to the extent that may be required to enable them to increase the standards of living of their peoples to levels commensurate with a decent and dignified way of life” (South Centre, 2007).
Sawin & Moomaw, Renewable revolution: low-carbon energy by 2030, Worldwatch Institute, 2009.
South Center, Integrating Development in Climate Change.Nov. 2007.
Climate change mitigation can work hand in hand with development. In fact, a “green” world currently seems like the best economic option. According to a study by MIT, certain policies to decrease carbon emissions would save large amounts of money if implemented, even without calculating in the benefits from mitigated climate change (Resutek 2014). Lessening future climate change is not a cost to disregard either; refusing to take drastic measures to mitigate climate change only creates increased costs the future. According to a new report from the White House, allowing the climate to warm 3ºC would decrease global productivity by 0.9 percent. 0.9 percent of the United States’ GDP alone is over $150 billion (House 2014). All around the world, communities are transitioning to infrastructure that is run by renewables (Sawin and Moomaw 2009). These communities must be used as models and frame a new, low-carbon infrastructure system for the globe. A low-carbon world is needed urgently and working towards this world will increase development and decrease premature deaths.
There is a cost in transitioning to a less carbon intensive world, but there is an even greater economic benefit. Establishing a cap-and-trade policy on carbon will create over 10.5 times the benefit in health benefits alone than the cost of the policy (Resutek 2014). This is only a small portion of the total benefits that will accompany a low carbon world. Furthermore, costs from reduced use of fossil fuels and improved technology methods are less of a moral “cost” than the costs of asthma and other illnesses. We must work together to create a healthier, cleaner world.
By increasing the energy efficiency of households and infrastructure and convert to renewable fuels, we can raise the standard of living for many people while also decreasing the odds of experiencing catastrophic climate change. As the Worldwatch report states, “the current reliance on fossil fuels is not supportable by poor developing countries, and increasing demand for fossil fuels is creating dangerous competition for remaining available resources of oil and gas” (Sawin and Moomaw 2009, 6). Renewables such as solar can allow people in less developed places to use clean energy without being on a grid or contributing to poor air quality and climate change. Competing for the last amount of oil will only result in war and high amounts of climate change. It is much smarter to forget the stored carbon and move on together with new technology.
These shifts can and are happening quickly. Germany had virtually no renewable energy industry in 1990 but is now a world leader in solar and wind. This seemingly cloudy country has increased solar photovoltaics by a factor of more than a hundred. Denmark, Sweden, China, Brazil and Israel are quickly transitioning their energy sector. For the first time, in 2008, investment in new renewable power capacity exceeded that for fossil-fueled technologies. Revamping the energy system of communities creates new industries and jobs. In Gussing, Austria, the community members used biodiesel to become energy self-sufficient and improved the quality of life for the local residents (Sawin and Moomaw 2009). Working within and among communities can be a powerful tool for combating climate change while improving standards of living for world citizens.
The Worldwatch report creates a scenario of the United States transitioning to a renewable energy economy; however, an actual application of this idea does not currently seem politically feasible. The scenario can be achieved by first increasing energy efficiency of all states, requiring all new buildings to be zero-carbon and retrofitting two-thirds of currently existing buildings, reducing heat waste in industries, and shifting towards a reliance on renewable energies. The report, produced in 2009, says that a “green” U.S. can emerge by 2030 (Sawin and Moomaw 2009). The pictures of clean energy for everyone, improving the lives of the impoverished, using the most efficient economic policy to produce mass health and climate benefits, or transitioning entire economies to efficient renewables seems almost unfeasible at the moment. In reality, if we start towards these goals, the policy will be much messier and less economically efficient. Transitioning will take much longer than could be possible. Providing development aid to poorer countries may be much less than needed. A perfect scenario to slow climate change should not be expected. Moving forward to a “green” world does not necessarily need to be a straight line, but as long as we keep fighting for change, some good will happen.
White House. June 2014. The Cost of Delaying Action to Stem Climate Change. Executive Office of the President of the United States.
Resutek, Audrey. 2014. Study: Cutting emissions pays for itself. August 24. http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/cutting-carbon-health-care-savings-0824.
Sawin, Janet L., and William R. Moomaw. 2009. Renewable Revolution: Low-Carbon Energy by 2030. Worldwatch Institute.
From the predicted heat waves lasting for 100 years to the Arctic Ice melting by 2080 to islands in Pacific being completely submerged, climate change’s projected future outcomes seem dire. The pressing issues generated from climate change poses serious threats for millions around the globe. However, the projected gloomy future could further the development in sustainability. Sustainable energy is often seen as alternative energy source, but in order to counteract climate change, a transition away from a fossil fuel based energy system is needed. Although climate change is inherently destructive, the dangers from climate change have furthered development in for sustainability and depending on future negotiations, the prospects for sustainable development should be accelerated due to an increased demand for alternative energy.
First of all, if climate change did not result in significant risks or simply did not exist, there would be not necessarily be a need to develop sustainable energy. Unfortunately, the human-induced green house gas emissions result in an imbalance in Earth’s climate systems. This imbalance has called for reform in many different sanctions in climate change negotiations. As policies become more restrictive with CO2 emissions, the demand for alternative energy sources should increase because there will be a need to utilize less carbon intensive energy sources. In areas where the current global energy system is lacking, renewable energy is well suited. For example, sustainable energy’s benefits range from: providing energy to some of the poorest regions to improving human health to creating new jobs. In particular, the major benefit is that it avoids adding more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which will have long-term benefits in counteracting climate change. The wide array of benefits from sustainable energy and the increase in demand for sustainable energy to achieve climate goals has resulted in climate change furthering development in sustainability.
Although the energy demand is currently concentrated on carbon emitting sources, the risks from climate changes have already resulted in a shift towards renewables and projected outcomes indicate advancement in renewables. Specifically, a trend towards renewables has already begun for renewable shares have “jumped from 5% in 2003 to 23% in 2008” (Sawin and Moomaw 2009). In addition, areas ranging in size and location are implementing sustainable developments by increasing energy efficiency and utilizing renewables. The current increasing trends are projected to extend seen in the global energy scenarios that show “a gradual shift to renewables” and hypothetically, “a transformation or step-change in how the world produces and uses energy” (Sawin and Moomaw 2009). In order to meet the suggested climate change emissions targets in the IPCC, a need for renewable energy may increase.
It is key to note that climate change will negatively impact various aspects, which includes the development of sustainability. The threats from climate change are and will cause economic, social and political strain. Due to finances, some developed nations will be less vulnerable and have the funds to further sustainability. Whereas, some developing nations do not have the funds to invest in expensive sustainable resources and need to focus available funds to alleviate climate change damage, limiting sustainable development. Fortunately, there are several strategies that can help solve the issues around implementing sustainability. One strategy is implementing a carbon tax, which would raise fuel prices and encourage the transition to alternative energy. Another possible strategy is for developed nations to provide finances for sustainable development in developing regions. An additional strategy is ratifying more aggressive short and long-term policies that will help eliminate the support for fossil fuels. Overall, sustainability has is weaknesses, but it is necessary in transitioning away from fossil fuel emissions.
The need for sustainable development would not be as pressing if our current fossil fuel energy system did not have lasting and negative impacts on the planet. Climate change could undermine economic and social goals, but if negotiations are successful there could be a development in sustainability. As conditions worsen, there will hopefully be more stringent carbon emission reductions. Hence, if future negotiations are progressive there could be a movement towards further developing suitability and moving away from carbon-emitting energy sources.
In the Copenhagen Accord (UNFCCC, 2010), during COP15, 114 countries agreed that “the increase in global temperature should be below 2°C, on the basis of equity”. This has been interpreted as the “dangerous” level agreed to by the parties in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992). To have a more likely than not chance at staying below 2°C, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere cannot exceed 500ppm (IPCC, 2014). Every 2.13 GtCO2 emitted will raise the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 1ppm (Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, 2012). As of September 2014, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was 395 ppm (NOAA, 2014). Thus, there is approximately 224 more GtCO2 that can be emitted until there is a less likely than not chance of having warming greater than 2°C. To reach this level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, global emissions must be reduced by 40-70% by 2050 and be at zero or negative emissions by the end of the century (IPCC, 2014). A carbon tax is the most effective way to make the transformative change needed to keep emissions below the agreed upon dangerous level of atmospheric GHGs. An aggressive carbon tax will allow dangerous climate change to be avoided because it is proven to work, it can be implemented quickly, and it has the potentially to drastically reduce emissions.
A carbon tax is an effective tool to mitigate emissions in a least cost manner. Every use of fossil fuels that is worth less than the price of the emissions will not occur and thus reduce emissions. As the fee rises, more carbon intensive activities will become economically infeasible, driving down GHG emissions. Depending on the original fee and rate of increase this would be an effective tool to rapidly decrease emissions at the least cost because market forces will drive carbon reductions. By setting a tax floor, emission reductions are ensured (as opposed to a price cap in cap-and-trade systems) and increase over time with price increases (Sawin and Moomaw, 2009). A cap-and-trade system will be associated with less certain emissions reductions because an emissions cap is also an emissions floor (Burtraw and Woerman, 2012). This means that maximum emissions reductions cannot always be achieved because the number of permits issued sets the reduction amount as opposed to market forces pushing emissions with economic forces. This tax scheme allows for efficient carbon reductions.
Several European countries have already put a tax on carbon. Denmark was able to do this successfully by taxing industry emissions to fund renewable energy projects (Sawin and Moomaw, 2009). Denmark proved that the carbon tax works when you tax the polluters and subsidize renewable energy (Prasad, 2008). A recent study even found that a majority of republicans, democrats and independents in the United States would support a carbon tax similar to Denmark’s in which all revenues would be returned to research and development of renewable energies (Amdur, 2014). This could make a carbon tax feasible in the US and allow for economically efficient emissions reductions.
During the last week of October 2014, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse announced his intentions to introduce a carbon fee bill to the US Senate (Pantsios, 2014). This bill would put a price on the carbon to fund social programs including helping workers transition out of carbon intensive jobs (Pantsios, 2014). Two MIT economists hypothesize that it is better for the economy to have carbon taxes than high federal taxes (specifically looking at the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts) even if those funds go towards social programs or tax cuts (Rausch and Reilly, 2012). For all these reasons, it seems like a carbon fee bill would do well in US congress; it makes logical sense, but the politics can get messy.
Australia passed a carbon tax in 2012 (Meng and others, 2013) under a pro-labor government attempting to reach across party lines to gain votes (Taylor and Hoyle, 2014). The politics around this legislation have been messy for a number of years and in 2014 the law was repealed under the notion that it hurts business and is preventing Australia from exporting its rich energy resources to countries across the world (Taylor and Hoyle, 2014). AGL Energy was cited as saying that this would cause a loss in revenue in the near term due to loss in assistance from the government/carbon tax; however, long-term profits are now looking up (Taylor and Hoyle, 2014). This could lead to backlash from citizens as the government takes away a A$500+ check, which was promised to households in the form of yearly savings (Taylor and Hoyle, 2014). Australia is the first example of a nation to pass a carbon fee and then later repeal it. A program, which gives money to the citizens, would seem to have broad voter appeal, like British Columbia’s program (2014). It appears that the politics were not set up properly for Australia to have a carbon fee that sticks. This does not mean that a carbon fee is impossible, but rather that care must be taken to set up a program that is politically feasible.
Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) are a good first step and should not be discourage amongst UNFCCC parties. To be effective, an agreement with a great deal of stringency, participation and compliance must be reached in Paris. It does not appear to be politically feasible, but if a global price on carbon could be agreed upon, this would allow for the best system to tie everyone together ensuring participation and compliance. The tax could provide increasing stringency over time to ensure effectiveness. This would allow certainty around carbon leakage out of countries with strict carbon rules and into low regulation nations. The carbon tax is a clear transformation change that would work to drive emissions down. Incremental changes and small policy reforms are unlikely to put the world in a position to mitigate warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Effective and decisive action is needed immediately to instill transformative change.
Amdur, D., Rabe, B., Borick, C. Public Views on a Carbon Tax Depend on the Proposed Use of Revenue. Issues in Energy and Environmental Policy. Number 13. July, 2014.
British Columbia. Carbon Tax. Ministry of Finance. 2014.
Burtraw, Dallas, and Matt Woerman. “US status on climate change mitigation.” Resources for the Future (RFF) Discussion Paper (2012): 12-48.
Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center – Conversion Tables. September, 2012.
IPCC, 2014: 5th Assessment Synthesis Report, Summer for Policy Makers. [Myles R. Allen (United Kingdom), Vicente Ricardo Barros (Argentina), John Broome (United Kingdom), Wolfgang Cramer (Germany/France), Renate Christ (Austria/WMO), John A. Church (Australia), Leon Clarke (USA), Qin Dahe (China), Purnamita Dasgupta (India), Navroz K. Dubash (India), Ottmar Edenhofer (Germany), Ismail Elgizouli (Sudan), Christopher B. Field (USA), Piers Forster (United Kingdom), Pierre Friedlingstein (United Kingdom), Jan Fuglestvedt (Norway), Luis Gomez-Echeverri (Colombia), Stephane Hallegatte (France/World Bank), Gabriele Hegerl (United Kingdom), Mark Howden (Australia), Kejun Jiang (China), Blanca Jimenez Cisneros (Mexico/UNESCO), Vladimir Kattsov (Russian Federation), Hoesung Lee (Republic of Korea), Katharine J. Mach (USA), Jochem Marotzke (Germany), Michael D. Mastrandrea (USA), Leo Meyer (The Netherlands), Jan Minx (Germany), Yacob Mulugetta (Ethiopia), Karen O’Brien (Norway), Michael Oppenheimer (USA), R.K. Pachauri (India), Joy J. Pereira (Malaysia), Ramón Pichs- Madruga (Cuba), Gian-Kasper Plattner (Switzerland), Hans-Otto Pörtner (Germany), Scott B. Power (Australia), Benjamin Preston (USA), N.H. Ravindranath (India), Andy Reisinger (New Zealand), Keywan Riahi (Austria), Matilde Rusticucci (Argentina), Robert Scholes (South Africa), Kristin Seyboth (USA), Youba Sokona (Mali), Robert Stavins (USA), Thomas F. Stocker (Switzerland), Petra Tschakert (USA), Detlef van Vuuren (The Netherlands), Jean-Pascal van Ypersele (Belgium)]. November 1, 2014.
Meng, S, Siriwardana, M., and McNeill, J. “The environmental and economic impact of the carbon tax in Australia.” Environmental and Resource Economics 54.3 (2013): 313-332.
Monica Prasad, “On Carbon, Tax and Don’t Spend,” New York Times, 25 March 2008.
NOAA. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Earth Systems Research Laboratory Global Monitoring Division. Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. October, 2014.
Patsios, Anastasia. Sen. Whitehouse Proposes Carbon Tax to Repay Citizens for Pollution Costs. Eco-watch. October, 2014.
Rausch, S., and Reilly, J. Carbon tax revenue and the budget deficit: A win-win-win solution?. MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, 2012.
Sawin, J., and Moomaw, W.. Renewable revolution: low carbon energy by 2030. Worldwatch Institute, 2009.
Taylor R. and Hoyle R. Australia Becomes First Developed Nation to Repeal Carbon Tax. The Wall Street Journal. July, 2014.
UNFCCC. Copenhagen Accord. “Report of the Conference of the Parties on its fifteenth session, held in Copenhagen from 7 to 19 December 2009.” UNFCCC/CP/2009/11/Add.1. March 30, 2010.
UNFCCC. United National Framework Convention on Climate Change. UNFCCC/INFORMAL/84. 1992.
President John F. Kennedy once remarked that, “when written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters; one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” The crisis of climate change poses many threats to the current global economic status quo, especially as many nations are developing at a rapid rate of speed. Their predecessors, the developed nations, experienced growth under the mantra of “grow fast, clean up later;” this second group of nations, however, doesn’t have that same luxury due to the threats posed by climate change. But, while it poses threats to the old economic ways and development paths already taken, there are also a plethora of opportunities presented through the climate crisis, which could carve a new development path that is more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.
The current system at the core of the global economy emerged as a result of the development paths taken by the Annex-I nations, which gave very little weight to environmental costs and degradation; this economy is still the one currently installed. Central to its philosophy and functionality is a “growth fetish” or “growth imperative” that places absolute focus upon GDP and whether or not it is increasing as the main indicator for development and growth. However, GDP doesn’t represent the full picture of economic growth, as it doesn’t indicate whether there is a fair or equitable distribution of benefits or an increasing or decreasing environmental quality. These two factors are an inseparable part of the threats climate change poses to society, and, if not taken into account as economies grow, could lead to “a lot of people [being] poor and polluted – the worst of all possible worlds.” With uncontrolled economic growth as has been seen historically, the world and global economy will be a great departure from what is currently enjoyed, with higher social inequality, lower environmental quality, and potentially severe climate change, all of which will make sustainable development increasingly more difficult to achieve.
Without making drastic changes to the current economic system and philosophy in response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development will be out of reach for developing countries. The effects of anthropogenic climate change will directly and negatively affect many of the essential drivers of sustainable development, namely food, water, and infrastructure, among others. These pose considerable economic threats to emerging and developing economies; it was estimated that the “total annual damage to China’s economy from environmental degradation is the equivalent of 9% of GDP…[and] bad sanitation and water pollution cost India 6% of national income,” to name a few examples. That is a crippling cost for an economy to absorb year after year, and, if perpetuated and extended, would have the potential to halt any growth that nations plan to achieve in the future.
However, there are numerous beneficial opportunities for sustainable development that arise in response to the threats posed by the climate crisis. These opportunities must be taken in light of the new economic reality that all future growth and development must be sustainable and sensitive to its effects upon the social, environmental, and economic systems in play. A green economy, as described above, is “characterized by substantially increased investments in economic activities…such as renewable energy, low-carbon transport, energy- and water-efficient buildings, sustainable agriculture and forest management, and sustainable fisheries.” All of these create good jobs and increase investment in local, regional, and national economies, while also establishing environmentally-friendly and sustainable infrastructure that will have impacts for its entire lifespan. Infrastructure plays a major role in the future of the economy and the scale at which sustainable development is achieved; “about two-thirds of the $8 trillion need for infrastructure investment in Asia and the Pacific between 2010 and 2020 will be in the form of new infrastructure, which creates tremendous opportunities to design, finance, and manage more sustainable infrastructure.”
This is a defining characteristic of green growth, as it, by definition and in practice, “means looking for investment-hungry projects that bring high returns in broad environmental and narrow commercial terms.” Green growth or sustainable development policies incentivize the private sector to innovate and discover even better and more sustainable methods in order to maximize their profits and market share. In effect, this allows for economic growth to be sustained over time, while also protecting and increasing the value of the environment as an asset for future generations. As the Stern Report declared, “tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy for the longer term, and it can be done in a way that does not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries.”
 Speth, James Gustave. “A New American Environmentalism and the New Economy.” Lecture, Tenth Annual John H. Chafee Memorial Lecture on Science and the Environment from the National Council for Science and the Environment, Washington, DC, January 21, 2010.
Climate change does pose significant threats to prospects for sustainable development as it threatens the ability to sustain the development with causing territories being submerged by water, reducing food supplies, and increasing health threats to populations. Luckily, there are some methods of development which simultaneously promote climate change mitigation and development. If the world continued to develop “business-as-usual” than there is no way that that type of development could be sustainable. The massive amounts of fossil fuels necessary for continued development on our current trajectory would push the Earth beyond the levels of climate change “dangerous” to human civilization. Non-fossil fuel intensive development methods, if employed globally, could mitigate further climate change, thus protecting development efforts from more dangerous climate change. The fact that non-fossil fuel methods reduce the danger of climate change makes it better able to sustain continued development through climate change. One alternate development strategy looking more and more hopeful is that of using renewable energies.
A strong paper written in support of low-carbon development is Sawin and Moomaw’s Worldwatch report “Renewable Revolution: Low-Carbon Energy by 2030”. Sawin and Moomaw make the case that combining renewable energy utilization with better energy efficiency efforts could lead to a low-carbon energy sector by 2030 without hindering development in any way, and perhaps even helping it. Currently, most of the world’s power plants lose about 2/3 of the energy they produce as heat (Sawin and Moomaw 10). There is no way that losing over half of the fossil fuel energy going into the power plants is necessary for development. With efficiency efforts capturing the excess heat and steam and updating older power plants to be more efficient, power plants are better able to serve development needs with less carbon emissions. Furthermore, combined with the use of renewable energies instead of fossil fuels, the new global energy system could in fact lead to low-carbon energy by 2030 (Sawin and Moomaw 6-7). Sawin and Moomaw claim that all of the technology required to employ renewable energies on a global scale are ready; only policy is holding back implementation (Sawin and Moomaw 23). This means that there is the capacity to energize the world on mostly renewable energy and not fossil fuels, and developing countries’ development will not be hindered by such efforts.
In fact Sawin and Moomaw give reasons that switching to renewables could in fact improve developing countries’ efforts compared to the business-as-usual approach. For one, renewable energy sources are especially rich in developing areas, offering a possibility for exporting energy and enjoying job opportunities which accompany the birth of a new industry (Sawin and Moomaw 16). Also, renewable energy can offer options for development where current fossil-fuel methods are failing. For example, in Africa where current energy infrastructure is failing, especially in light of the booming population there, fossil fuels are inadequate to serve Africans’ energy needs in order to develop. Renewable sources, and especially wind, however offer and option for more sustainable energy that can support the continent’s development (Sawin and Moomaw 39). Developing countries will still need aid in building new infrastructure, so luckily the motions are already in place to get this through UNFCCC-created funds for climate change initiatives.
As Sawin and Moomaw argue, a low-carbon energy sector offers a road to development which does not simultaneously threaten the sustainability of the very societies which are developing. The trick is not making in improving technology; this has already happened. Instead, policies such as fossil fuel subsidies need to be terminated while other programs supporting renewable energies be created. And as we are getting closer and closer to Sawin and Moomaw’s 2030 goal, time for policy change is running out. If nations want to maintain their hard-earned development, the necessity of moving away from fossil fuels cannot be ignored.
Sawin, Janet and William Moomaw. “Renewable revolution: low-carbon energy by 2030.” Worldwatch Institute, 2009. Web. 2 Nov. 2014.