Resource scarcity, fair shares and development

This excellent “discussion paper” was written by Alex Evans for the World Wildlife Fund and Oxfam, which deserve loads of kudos for supporting it.  And, more generally, for thinking big.  The tone of the post-Copenhagen debate, after all, is a rather defeated one, and most climate folks are searching around for one kind of climate pragmatism or another.  Grand thinking about equity, and about its role in rising to the coming crisis, is rare indeed.

Evans is a long time member of what, for lack of a better term, I will call the fair-shares party, and he knows his way around.  Accordingly, Resource scarcity, fair shares, and development covers a lot of ground.  And it does so in a brief and well-organized way.  Skip the graphics and it’s only 17 pages long.  You should absolutely read it, and while you’re trying to find the time, let me make only two comments:

First, this moment of ours is interesting in the worst way.  If it was a movie, it could be called The Return of the Son of Limits to Growth.  And this requires us to walk carefully indeed.  A lot of people in the peak oil / peak everything camp treat “the end of growth” as a self-evident fact.  But it’s not, at least not in general, and in any case this is not a winning strategy.  Especially because the Limits debate has always been confused by a confabulation of “growth” (a weird abstraction if ever there was one) and more straight-forward notions of resource scarcity.

In this context, Evans, a man who unabashedly believes that “resource scarcity will be a game changer for global justice agendas,” explicitly and diplomatically advocates care.  Like so:

“Debate is starting to open up on whether limits apply just to certain resources, such as oil or carbon space, or to economic growth per se.  The latter could yet prove to be the case: while green economy agendas focus on “decoupling” economic growth  from environmental impacts (i.e. reducing the carbon or resource intensity for each unit of production), current decoupling rates are being outpaced by economic growth, so that total environmental impact is still rising.

But even if there really are limits to growth, it will take time for this to become clear.  While campaigners should not try to duck the question of whether there are limits to growth, neither should they risk polarising debate by taking too definitive or didactic a tone at the outset.  Instead, they should play a long game: suggest that there is a genuine debate to be had about limits to growth, and that the jury is still out, but above all underline that it is already clear that there are limits to the supply / availability of crucial resources –and that policy needs to face up to this, and in particular the fair shares issues that are unavoidably involved.”

This, while perhaps a bit coy, is a pretty sharp comment.

Second, Evans is and has long been a partisan of the Contraction and Convergence model of a fair, high ambition climate transition.  I for my part am a long-time partisan of Greenhouse Development Rights.  What we have in common, I think, is that we’re both as interested in promoting fair-shares approaches in general as we are in flogging our own goods.  Thus, Evans finds a place in this analysis to pitch C&C, but he also makes a polite pro-forma reference to GDRs (page 16).  And in a major departure for advocates of C&C, he even discusses the “dilemmas” that would likely result from any international system that allocated carbon emission permits directly to governments (and thus, implicitly, to national elites).  And, in yet another fit of open-mindedness, he suggests that personal carbon allowances might help solve these dilemmas (page 13).

All of this is a side issue, but Evans know this, and he keeps it on the side.   Which is nice, and inspires confidence, even if the really core issue in all this — the problem of development in a climate and resource constrained world — never quite comes into focus.  Which, of course, it cannot do in 17 pages.

Anyway, as the fair-shares debate evolves, Evans will have no problem adapting.  And neither, I hope, will WWF and Oxfam.  Nor I myself.   We’ll all get lots of chances, for the core issues here — new issues raised by new kinds of scarcity and new kinds of turbulence — are likely to loom extremely large in our futures.

On that front, here are some words that Evans himself chose, when introducing his report:

“Yesterday WWF and Oxfam co-hosted a workshop in London on scarcity, fair shares and development – I did the introductory presentation, and wrote a paper ahead of the event which is published online today. In one sentence, my argument at the workshop was that,

As the 21st century global economy hits natural resource limits and planetary boundaries, fundamental questions about fair shares will start to arise – and these questions will increasingly come to be seen as the new front line for international development.

As I stressed in the presentation, this is not to say that I believe we’re headed for a neo-Malthusian nightmare:

On the contrary, I think we can be confident that markets will adapt and that technological innovations will emerge – as they always do.  But that process of transition will take time.  It will need to overcome inertia, market failures, externalized costs and perverse subsidies.  And until it’s complete, poor people and poor countries risk losing access to resources that they depend on for their basic needs.  And so any discussion of limits is also, inevitably, a discussion about fair shares.

And this will be a different kind of ‘fairness’ agenda to the one that those of us who think of ourselves as progressives are used to.  I think we’ve only just begun to internalise just what a game changer the emergence of environmental and natural resource limits will be for global agendas about justice and equality:

Left and right have long disagreed about more or less everything, except the existence of an expanding ‘cake’ to share out.  As long as the cake is expanding, then you can argue – as the political philosopher John Rawls famously did in his Theory of Justice back in 1971 – that inequality is OK if the worst off people are better off, in absolute terms, than they’d be under an equal distribution.  But if the cake is finite, then by definition more for the better off means less for the worse off.  It’s a much starker proposition.”