Why world must balance climate policy with economic growth
We will long remember 2020 as the year of the pandemic. Future historians, however, may add another milestone to the troubling year: The hottest year on record. In a world where climate policy has shot to the top of the global agenda, we now have the temperatures to back up the concerns.
According to European researchers affiliated with the Copernicus Climate Change Service, the year 2020 tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record, contributing to deadly heatwaves in Europe, wildfires in the western US, accelerated ice melting in the Arctic, and record-breaking temperatures across the Middle East.
Residents from Iraq to Israel and Lebanon to Saudi Arabia last year experienced record-breaking summer temperatures, particularly during the Eid Al-Adha holiday. In Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut, air conditioning units were overworked and often broke down. Lebanon and Iraq have also experienced acute electricity shortages over the past year, exacerbating tensions in already fragile political situations.
By now, it is clear that global temperatures are rising. Ironically, the oft-targeted culprit — fossil fuels — have been a driver of today’s world of unimaginable prosperity. The Industrial Revolution did many things for the world, both positive and negative, but it clearly led to a rise in living standards in many Western countries — a rise that has since also been playing out across the developing and emerging world. Yes, tremendous challenges remain in eradicating poverty and promoting equitable growth worldwide, but make no mistake about it: The world is today far better off economically than it has ever been in human history.
The much-maligned fossil fuels have played a key role in the rise of developing and emerging market countries. They have been the hungriest drivers of fossil fuel growth over the past decade. As they play catch-up to the living standards in the Western and advanced economies, their industries, transport systems, electricity grids and the like are devouring more and more fossil fuels. China, for example, is now the world’s largest consumer of energy.
To many in the developing world, the screeching halt on fossil fuels demanded by some climate activists in the West seems hypocritical: The Western climate activists live in advanced economies precisely because of the fossil fuel-driven Industrial Revolution that benefited their countries, often to the detriment of colonized states in Asia, Africa and the like. Now that the emerging world is playing catch-up, why must they slow down their rise?
The reality, however, is that the climate crisis will ultimately hit everyone, and it is not just a West-led issue. Still, the process will be slow. It is the exact opposite of a fast-moving virus like the coronavirus disease, but its effects will be even more transformational. We often hear of dramatic numbers of potential “climate refugees” crossing borders, but the reality is that extreme climate events mostly lead to internal migration, though the disruption can be just as painful for families and children.
President-elect Joe Biden has declared that the US will re-enter the Paris Agreement — the global compact of nations agreed in 2015 with ambitious pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions — on Day 1 in office. He also pledged a meeting of world leaders to discuss climate issues in his first 100 days in office. This will be followed by the UN’s major climate conference known as COP26, which will be held in Glasgow in November.
Several ambitious pledges have already been made. China has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2060, while the EU has made the same vow for 2050. France has declared an end to the sale of fossil fuel cars by 2040 and the US state of California has pledged to do the same by 2035. All of these pledges will amount to a significant transition in our energy systems.
Slamming the brakes on fossil fuels would hit poor countries particularly hard in the short and medium-term.
The critical word here is “transition.” Yes, the world should transition to more sustainable energy over time, but slamming the brakes on fossil fuels would hit poor countries particularly hard in the short and medium-term. It would also cause more political instability in advanced economies. Let us not forget what launched France’s Yellow Vest movement that rocked the country in 2018: A spike in gasoline prices in the name of climate action. Nigeria and India also saw recent protests linked to fuel price hikes.
Several of the world’s leading energy companies are on the right track with their initiatives to both cut greenhouse gas emissions in their processes and also pursue alternative energies. Most of the global energy majors are making a deep push into renewables.
The world’s leading fossil fuel-producing countries also need to play a significant role in the world’s energy transition. The recent announcement of an ambitious new zero-carbon city development at NEOM in northwestern Saudi Arabia is precisely the kind of shoot-for-the-stars thinking required for this moment. The new city, known as The Line, will likely be an incubating ground for a whole range of yet-to-be discovered initiatives for what a future sustainable city might become — one that could be replicated widely.
Saudi Arabia’s circular carbon economy initiative, endorsed by the G20, also presents an innovative and pragmatic road map toward the transition. In other regional news, the recent UAE appointment of Sultan Al-Jaber, the chairman of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), as special envoy for climate change worldwide is also a positive step. Al-Jaber has wide experience with renewable energy as the chairman of Masdar, a leading global renewable energy operator. His role at ADNOC may be even more important as, to achieve this transition, the world’s oil and gas-producing leaders must be at both tables.
Transitional moments are difficult and potentially disruptive. Transitioning our energy systems will require dexterity and skill, not merely slogans and lectures. The slogans and lectures may win you applause on social media or in UN seminars, but we must be very careful not to hurt the poor and developing world in the name of “climate action” as we transition — as we inevitably must — to more renewable and sustainable energy resources.
- Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and editor and founder of the New Silk Road Monitor. Twitter: @AfshinMolavi