On climate, our hubris is the problem
Unless we move beyond techno-centrism, discuss a fair development deal, and change lifestyles, summits won’t yield outcomes
This was meant to be a consequential year for the environment. A summit in January issued an adaptation action agenda. United States President Joe Biden convened a climate leaders’ summit in April. The G7 promised to stop financing coal. The United Nations (UN) will hold a high-level dialogue on energy in September. In October, Italy will host a planet-focused G20 meeting while China will convene a biodiversity conference. The Glasgow climate talks in November will be a litmus test of climate action. If global summits could save the planet, 2021 would have done the trick.
The truth is that the world doesn’t need saving, we do. Humans are altering the face of the planet and the future of millions of species in the age of the Anthropocene. But as an intelligent species, it is our problem-solving approach that needs course correction. Let us recognise the pathologies.
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Techno-centrism: Our instinct is to look for technologies to solve problems. We over-engineer rather than trust nature. So, a dam takes precedence over a water-recharge well. A seafront embankment gets investment but saving mangroves that buffer against storm surges does not.
We use phrases such as biomimicry to give the illusion of human ingenuity in copying nature. Take the idea of injecting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight and lower the earth’s temperature (mimicking large volcanic eruptions). Or the quest to build carbon-sucking machines for “direct air capture”. Instead, why not focus on retaining carbon in healthy soils by practising regenerative agriculture? Soils store 2,500 billion tonnes of carbon, thrice what is in the atmosphere and four times that stored in all living plants and animals.
Techno-fixes seem attractive because there are fewer things to control. It is easier to conceive of a fleet of specially designed balloons or aeroplanes to inject stratospheric aerosols than imagine a wholesale change in agricultural practices for hundreds of millions of farmers.
Techno-mercantilism: The corollary to techno-centrism is the desire to control rather than collaborate. Climate technology platforms seldom offer developing countries the chance to co-develop advanced technologies. Since many countries face the prospect of shifting from importing oil to importing solar panels, I examined 15 emerging markets for their net import dependence for renewable energy equipment. Only four (China, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore) were net exporters. No summit is exploring an agenda to diversify renewables’ supply chains that give more countries a stake in green industries.
Despite an earth-shattering pandemic, access to vaccines remains contested. What confidence can developing countries have for access to technologies to combat the more pernicious climate crisis? Of more than a dozen bilateral partnerships on green hydrogen, none involves South American countries, one includes Morocco in Africa, and one involves Brunei in Asia. A spate of hydrogen alliances merely supports the national programmes of advanced countries. They are not genuine collaborative efforts.
No deal for development: A grand bargain on climate action should include a deal for development for low-income countries. The seventh sustainable development goal (SDG7) on access to sustainable energy for all must connect with SDG8 on decent work and economic growth or SDG9 on industry, innovation and infrastructure. Energy access cannot be just a light bulb in a poor woman’s hut. It must mean access to clean energy to power enterprises and support livelihoods. Where is the conversation about green industrialisation for Africa or Asia?
We are shifting from the need to secure gas pipelines to protecting critical minerals for electric vehicle batteries. But will Bolivia forever export raw materials (historically silver and tin; now the world’s largest reserves of lithium)? Will the Democratic Republic of Congo remain a Wild West of minerals needed in clean tech products? How will they avoid currency appreciation thanks to a commodity boom (the dreaded Dutch Disease), making it hard to competitively export finished products?
Financial exclusion of nature: The financial ecosystem is paying attention to the environment, social and governance guidelines. Yet fundamental flaws remain. We want public finance to be leveraged (rightly) to attract multiples of private capital into sustainable infrastructure. But where is the private investment to make the vulnerable more climate-resilient? Amidst debates about sustainable finance, nature is excluded. We value products that clean up degraded resources, not assets that are clean. GDP grows when a sewage treatment plant is built, not when a river is not polluted to begin with. No financial product induces the latter.
Uncompromised lifestyles: No summit discusses sustainable lifestyles. Ironically, we whoop with delight when Elon Musk unveils an electric pickup truck with a range of 400km, but do not ask why a city-dweller should own a pickup truck in the first place. Are materials not needed to make heavy vehicles, even if electric? Why only focus on range anxiety when it comes to EVs but not on reducing mobility needs in better-planned cities? How do we go from a throwaway culture to pledging “no single-use everything”: Water, waste, minerals, plastic, soil, even carbon? We must change the metrics of valuation. India has the world’s third-largest startup ecosystem. Can it aspire to birth the world’s first circular economy unicorn?
Halfway through a supposedly consequential year, can we honestly say that summits are mitigating and not aggravating these pathologies? Treating the world’s poor with a disdainful saviour complex means we want them to be audiences for speeches, not partners in reimagining development. The planet doesn’t need fixing; our hubris does. Let’s start by admitting we have a problem.
Arunabha Ghosh is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water
The views expressed are personal
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