The Equity Landscape (and the Global Stocktake)

I’ll not assume, dear reader, that you are up to speed with the Global Stocktake — which is beginning in earnest this year — but I will say that there’s absolutely no chance of achieving anything like rapid climate stabilization without assessment, review, and stocktake processes that (a crucial proviso, this) are strongly linked to ambition ratcheting mechanisms that kick in when we find ourselves falling short.

I will add that Article 14 of the Paris Agreement, which creates the Global Stocktake, was hard won. In particular, its mandate that the climate regime’s formal stocktake be done “in the light of equity” only exists because the African Negotiating Group and the “like minded” countries battled the rich countries to insist that equity play a key part in the Agreement’s final text.

Thus, I’m pleased to announce that, after a long gestation period, the very international Equity Working Group of the Independent Global Stocktake — a civil society shadow organization that would obviously not exist without the stocktake itself — has issued its initial report, which is called The Equity Landscape.

This report does not focus on the nuts and bolts of the formal global stocktake, but rather surveys the equity and ambition problem as a whole, within the highly constrained formal processes that define the stocktake and, blessedly, within “the real world” as well. It’s a substantial piece of work, and it wasn’t easy to produce, but if you’re following the equity thread in the negotiations, it’s required reading. Here’s a bit of the introduction:

“The Global Stocktake, which is to be conducted “in the light of equity,” could substantively advance global climate negotiations. But the GST is constrained by the same realities as the larger negotiations. The Independent Global Stocktake (iGST) is similarly constrained, though its independence allows it to look past the formal process to the larger world, which is after all the real source of the paralysis that now threatens us all. This brief paper takes advantage of this independence to do just that. It does not pretend to map the overall position in anything like a comprehensive manner, but it is, we hope, a helpful reflection. Its goal is not to paint the equity challenge in strokes so broad that practical steps seem useless and insignificant, but rather to inform such steps, that they might actually move us forward.”

Solving the Climate Crisis with Nuclear Energy Won’t Work

Back before the pandemic, the Abalone Alliance — the West Coast anti-nuclear alliance I was active with back in the day — had a reunion, and I was asked to speak. I came prepared to explain to my assembled co-fogies that, while we absolutely didn’t need to build any more nukes, we shouldn’t rush to shut down Diablo Canyon either. What with the global climate emergency and all.

I was asked to restrain myself, and to my shame I did. I feared that that distinction between keeping existing nukes operating, subject of course to real safety procedures, and building new ones would strike most people as scholastic, and that in any case the pro-nuke ideologues would love nothing more than repeat, with all their requisite distortions, that the old anti-nuke crowd was walking back its defining opposition to nuclear power.

Anyway, if you spend any time fielding suggestions that the anti-nuke movement had been, say, wrong, take a few minutes to read Robert Pollin’s short and decisive Solving the Climate Crisis with Nuclear Energy Won’t Work. You’ll be glad you did.

Points of Comparison — Can we Afford a Fair Global Climate Transition?

 

“Anything we can actually do, we can afford”.

John Maynard Keynes

How to create the political backing for the international effort necessary to achieve a fair and rapid global climate transition, even though that support would be properly denominated not in billions of dollars but rather in trillions, or even as percentages of Gross World Product?

One eye-opening approach is to proceed by way of comparison – to show that the likely costs of the climate transition, great though they may be, are small when considered against the alternatives, and entirely affordable when considered against other, even larger expenditures, which we routinely accept as inevitable, even though they are often ill-conceived and sometimes criminally frivolous, and tend increasingly to be self-destructive on a monumental scale.

In a way, we all already know this, for we never tire of pointing out that the damage costs of inaction will far exceed the costs of any plausible mobilization. But other comparisons are also helpful, comparisons against the sums mobilized for other purposes, and also against the trillions that are wasted, on every front, when luxury consumption sets the terms by which expense is justified.

The good news here is that such comparisons are now routinely being made. Since the 2009 global financial crisis, and especially since the COVID pandemic, large governmental and inter-governmental financial interventions have, in the face of cascading emergencies, become almost routine. In both cases, very large numbers of people, and even significant fractions among the political elites, have been jolted into understanding that major mobilizations of public finance are sometimes absolutely, indisputably, necessary.

However, it’s still not possible to talk honestly and openly about the scale of the climate finance that’s actually necessary, or to keep the formal climate finance conversation from devolving into one in which private investment gets all the airtime. To be sure, there are many people who believe that transformational levels of public finance will be necessary to stabilize the climate system. But many of them also accommodate themselves to a policy world in which, so the thinking goes, the challenges of public finance can be safely set aside. In fact, public finance, and public planning and coordination more generally, will be absolutely necessary to the economy-wide transformations the climate crisis requires. Major debates remain before this point is so clearly established that it can no longer be reasonably contested, but at the same time, the conversation has clearly shifted. “Trillion is the new billion,” and this helps a great deal.

The key point here is that money is not the real problem. Keynes’ declaration made during World War II, “anything we can actually do, we can afford”, applies here as well. That said, the institutional and political challenges of providing the public finance and technology support necessary to achieve 1.5°C would be immense. The issues here sprawl, but I think it’s fair to say that Keynes would also have considered them to be entirely solvable. 

For the moment, here are a few useful points of comparison:

Environmentally destructive subsidies. Every day, governments spend massive amounts of money to subsidize the destruction of our world. How much money? If you count not only fossil subsidies but a variety of subsidies for environmentally destructive activities, across a range of sectors including agriculture, forestry, water management, and fisheries, activities leading not only to climate destabilization but also biodiversity loss, land degradation and global inequality, the latest expert estimate appears to lie north of $1.8 trillion a year, or about 2% of Gross World Product (GWP), all of which goes into directly supporting unsustainable production and consumption.

Of this $1.8 trillion, about $640 billion comes as explicit subsidies to the global fossil industry. Actual cash. But there’s more to this story, as far as fossil fuel subsidies are concerned, in part because some of it comes as consumption subsides designed to protect the poor (a fact the fossil cartel takes full advantage of, in its endless claims to be a great benefactor of humanity) and in part because there is another, truer way, to estimate fossil subsidies. This time it’s the IMF that has run the numbers, and despite criticism, stuck to its insistence that hidden damage costs must be counted as subsidies, and in 2020 calculated the real fossil subsidy was about $5.9 trillion, almost 7% of global GDP. Which comes to about $11 million a minute.

COVID Recovery spending. According to the International Energy Agency, pandemic recovery spending, as of October of 2021, had reached $16.9 trillion. Of that, about $2.3 trillion went into long-term investments, of which only about $470 billion was for clean energy and sustainable recovery – about 3% of the total. Much of this was a one-time outlay that will not be repeated, so it’s notable that fossil energy subsidies significantly outpaced clean energy subsidies. It’s also notable that the overall economic recovery was fantastically inequitable. According to the World Inequality Lab, the richest 1% of the global population have, since the beginning of the pandemic, captured 19 times more of global wealth growth than the whole of the bottom 50%. The extremity here is frankly amazing – Oxfam, in its Inequality Kills report, notes that “The increase in Bezos’ fortune alone during the pandemic could pay for everyone on earth to be safely vaccinated”.

Military spending. Military spending is the gold standard of wasted economic potential, so it’s notable that, in early 2021, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated the world military spending had risen to almost $2 trillion in 2020. And this figure is growing fast. The US military budget is the largest in the world (it recently came to about 40% of the global total) and“ according to a projection by the Congressional Budget Office, Congress is projected to spend about $8.5 trillion for the military over the next decade – about half a trillion more than is budgeted for all nonmilitary discretionary programs combined (a category that includes federal spending on education, public health, scientific research, infrastructure, national parks and forests, environmental protection, law enforcement, courts, tax collection, foreign aid, homeland security and health care for veterans)”. But rapid growth is also taking place in China, where the military budget is about $229 billion and “modernization” programs are driving its growth up by an estimated 7.1 percent per year, and of course in Europe, where the Ukraine war has led a new prioritization for all things military.

Odious Debt. The poor are in all ways disadvantaged, and this of course means adequate climate action is often beyond their grasp, as is sustainable development itself. For some key current details, see the 2022 Financing for Sustainable Development Report, which begins not with the COVID pandemic but with the “legacy of inequality” that already hung over the poor countries when it arrived, a legacy that only deepened as the COVID crisis cascaded into broader economic instability (supply chains, inflation, higher interest rates) and then into the instabilities and economic dislocations of the Ukraine war. The chief point here, to be undiplomatic, is the billions in debt interest that the developing countries must every year pay to their creditors in the wealthy world, a burden that is sometimes so odious that the term “debt slavery”  seems more a simple honest description than any kind of hyperbole.

How large is the developing world’s external debt? Estimates vary, as does the legitimacy of the debt – how valid was it, really, to transfer South Africa’s apartheid debt to its inheritors, most of whom never had any part in negotiating it, or benefiting from it?  What is clear is that the total external debt of the developing countries reached $10.6 trillion in the wake of the pandemic, and that the servicing of this debt consumes resources that are now desperately needed for both development and the climate transition. In the low-income countries alone, external debt sharply increased during that pandemic, reaching $860 billion in 2020. No wonder a new wave of defaults has begin, and that widespread debt distress appears to be on the horizon.

Dynastic wealth. This brief list would not be complete without a mention of dynastic wealth, which is passed down from generation to generation within families, and of course within castes and classes. The numbers vary tremendously from country to country, but the US figures alone are boggling enough. Wealth managers estimate that “nearly 45 million U.S. households will transfer a total of $68.4 trillion in wealth to heirs and charity over the course of the next 25 years”. And of course, much of these transfers will be protected from taxation – according to one keystone study, “these wealthy families will avoid as much as $8.4 trillion in estate and generation-skipping taxes between now and 2024, by using dynasty trusts and other currently legal loopholes”.

Tax Avoidance. Speaking of the rich, we should mention hidden wealth, which is shielded by tax havens and secrecy laws, and has now been estimated to be about 8% of the world’s household financial wealth, or 10% of GWP . In 2007, this came to about $5.7 trillion. More generally, and this is probably the best bottom-line figure for this brief summary, taxing the world’s richest could raise about $2.52 trillion a year. It’s not enough to support all the ongoing social services associated with a just and sustainable global society, but it would definitely help. It would certainly cover the core of the climate transition. And if we may add a country specific data point, note that the wealth of the US billionaire class increased by an estimated $1.7 trillion since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and that, under current laws, almost none of this new wealth will ever be taxed.

Blood Fossils. Finally, given Russia’s war on Ukraine, it seems appropriate to note that a good fraction of the untold billions that are spent on fossil fuels are diverted, sometimes immediately, to support the worst kinds of infamy. The exact figure varies with the price of gas and oil, but as of this writing, good estimates held that “Europe’s ongoing energy purchases send as much as $850 million each day into Russia’s coffers” (estimates vary, but see the citation to the Bruegal think tank’s numbers here). This, of course, is clear evidence of an intolerable dependence, and voices everywhere have risen to denounce it. What is not clear is how many of them will denounce the larger dependence, which hems us in on every side, with anything like equal vigour. Russian oil and gas, after all, is only the tip of the fossil iceberg.

 

 

The Climate Fair Shares approach as a foundation of Emergency Global Climate Mobilization

Given the shout out that Bill McKibben just gave our work in the New Yorker, I’d thought I’d quickly post a brief direction finder — this post — for people who’ve come here looking for more information.

Here’s the shout out:

Tom Athanasiou’s Berkeley-based organization EcoEquity, as part of the Climate Equity Reference Project, has done the most detailed analyses of who owes what in the climate fight. He found that the U.S. would have to cut its emissions a hundred and seventy-five per cent to make up for the damage it’s already caused—a statistical impossibility. Therefore, the only way it can meet that burden is to help the rest of the world transition to clean energy, and to help bear the costs that global warming has already produced. As Athanasiou put it, “The pressing work of decarbonization is only going to be embraced by the people of the Global South if it comes as part of a package that includes adaptation aid and disaster relief.”

First, I want to stress that EcoEquity does not do this work alone, but rather as part of the Climate Equity Reference Project, or CERP. Further, CERP itself does not work alone, but rather as part of a large and expanding set of networks and collaboratives, in the US and around the world.

Second, if you want the details — some of them quite technical — on how the Climate Equity Reference framework works, it’s the Climate Equity Reference Project site you should rummage around on. See in particular the Climate Equity Reference Calculator, which is totally worth a bit of your time.

Third, if you’re interested in the specific details behind the United States’ fair share in a global emergency climate transition, you should check out the US Climate Fair Share site. The fair share position reflected herein is that of the US Climate Action Network — which chose the “equity settings” — which is itself kind of a big deal.

If you’re just coming to the climate fair shares idea, keep in mind that the exact numbers are not the point. The point is rather that national fair shares are calculated relative to three high level equity principles: historical responsibility, national capacity and, well, need. Which just so happen to be the equity principles behind the UN’S Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The nuances here are many and interesting, but the essential takeaway — at least for a high-capacity, high-responsibility country like the US — is that a nation’s climate fair share can be a lot higher than 100%. The US, bluntly, has to do a lot more than just reduce its emissions to zero if it wants to do its fair share in a global mobilization that is actually scaled to achieve the temperature goals laid down in the Paris Agreement. To read some details on this, and in particular on the equity choices USCAN chose when making its calculations, see this briefing.

Also note that the fair shares idea is extremely relevant to the challenge of rapidly phasing out fossil energy. On this front, check out to the Civil Society Equity Review, which has been putting out fair-shares inflected annual reports since the Paris meeting in 2015, reports with hundreds of organizational supports from around the world. Note especially the 2021 report, which is called A Fair-Shares Phase Out. It has to be counted as a foundational contribution to the nascent debate about how to approach the huge, though barely acknowledged, equity challenges of a very rapid and equitable transition away from fossil fuels.

To close, I’ll just ask you one of my favorite questions — what kind of a climate transition would be fair enough to actually work?

“Equity Working Group” submission to the Global Stocktake

Let’s imagine, just for a second, that things get back on track, or at least back to normal. That we avoid a larger war, stabilize liberal democracy, and even — as an essential part of the climate mobilization — get the negotiations into gear. In this case, the so-called “Global Stocktake” will suddenly transform into what international climate policy activists have long hoped it wold be — a crucible in which the equity agenda is reshaped into a pathway of true international ambition.

The Global Stocktake, in case you missed it, was a hard-fought victory that represents the strongest “equity hook” in the Paris Agreement. Its kernel, as expressed in Article 14 of the Agreement, calls for the collective ambition of the world’s countries to be assessed every five years, in the light of “the best available science” and — this was the hard part — “in the light of equity.”

A long story, all this, but here’s the part to remember. The world’s nations could not agree on even a vague and toothless assessment of individual national pledges of climate action. Which meant that civil society activists and research organizations had to step forward and try, as best they could, to fill that gap. One of the new actors in this space is the Independent Global Stocktake, which has a number of working groups, one of them being the Equity Working Group, which I am pleased to help coordinate.

The EWG is a pretty interesting crew — climate equity experts from around the world. And some of its collective views are contained in the iGST’s first official submission to the formal UN stocktake. I’m particularly proud of this bit, from the abstract, which will, perhaps, get a bit of attention as the negotiations grind forward:

“To conduct the GST “in light of equity” it will be essential to set its scope appropriately. In addition to finding ways of including all of mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, finance and support, and capacity building, the GST will need to find ways of accommodating the dynamic nature of global goals for adaptation and loss and damage as these are dependent on global achievements across mitigation, finance and support, and capacity building.

The GST must open into high-quality assessments in the light of equity. This means that, though the GST outcomes are themselves mandated to be collective, the GST will need to create a context within which the global community can move towards a shared understanding of the principles and benchmarks appropriate to assessing the equity, and inequity, of individual national pledges and individual national actions. The challenge of just differentiation, after all, has not gone away.”

Here’s the submission . . .

Targeting the emissions of the super-rich is essential if we actually want to stabilize the climate system

Energy Monitor just ran a lovely little piece based on the research of Lucas Chancel, which in turn draws on the World Inequality database. It reiterates the by now hopefully familiar fact that the wealthiest 10% of the global population is responsible for almost half of carbon emissions, but then connects a few dots that are, alas, generally allowed to float free, and tells us that targeting the “super-rich” could help define a fair path to a global net-zero world.

Here. for quick reference, from this study, are the latest numbers:

“the top 10% wealthiest people are responsible for almost half of individual CO2 emissions globally, with the top 1% contributing close to 17%. In contrast, the bottom half of people are responsible for just 12% of individual carbon emissions. Based on an input-output framework that represents the interdependencies between different economy-environmental sectors, the same study estimates that 60–70% of the global carbon footprint can be traced to individual consumption”

https://wid.world/document/global-carbon-inequality-1990-2019-wid-world-working-paper-2021-22/

And here’s some news, and the key takeaway:

“While two-thirds of the inequality in individual emissions was due to emissions inequalities between countries in 1990, the situation almost entirely reversed in 2019: 63% of the global inequality in individual emissions is now due to gaps between low and high emitters within countries,” said researcher Lucas Chancel in the WID study.

This trend deserves a lot more attention. While once the defining inequality was between rich and poor countries, the balance has shifted. Global inequality is today defined more by the divide between rich and poor people, and this is true in all parts of the world. Stare at this for a while . . .