Adam Tooze: “There Is a Fix for Climate Change. But Can We Afford It?”

In this interview from Global Reboot, the Foreign Policy podcast, its editor in chief Ravi Agrawal asks the economic historian & critic & polymath & general know-it-all Adam Tooze some key questions and then lets him run, which is basically all you can do with Tooze.

The key topics here are:

1) the financing demands of the global climate transition, which for the purposes of this discussion limited to mitigation. Hint: 2 to 4 trillion dollars a years in additional investment, about half of which is “inefficient”, which is to say that it is insufficiently profitable or risky or otherwise unwise to count on, at least in a business-as-usual world.

2) the political conditions under which this mitigation finance might be mobilized, and why, in Tooze’s view there are only two ways it might actually happen. The first is something like a global green new deal; the second is a massive public / private “derisking” enterprise of the kind that Blackrock’s Larry Fink dreams about.

The first, of course, is ruled out by the realism of the day, while the second would stink to high heaven.

In any case, this is short and focused — an interesting piece of the puzzle.

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.

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 . . .

COP26: The Developing Countries have a Plan!

I’ve recently found time to read COP26: Delivering the Paris Agreement: A Five-Point Plan for Solidarity, Fairness and Prosperity, and I urge you to do the same. If you’ve been wondering what to expect from, and what to demand of, the upcoming climate talks in Glasgow, this is an excellent place to begin.

The title here – Delivering the Paris Agreement – sets the frame. Nearly 100 developing countries have endorsed this five-point plan for winning success in Glasgow, which is written in the belief that COP26 is “a time of both maximum need and maximum opportunity.”

The North’s activists are often quick to dismiss the climate summits as empty talk shops, but the South’s negotiators cannot afford to be so glib. Thus, the focus of this plan is the possibility of substantive wins, now and in the next ten years, wins that are absolutely necessary if the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals are to remain within reach.

The plan’s authors, many of whom have spent long and bitter years worrying the climate talks, could easily itemize the compromises and limits that define the Paris Agreement, but they call instead for its full and immediate implementation. This is a realism that centers the interests of the poor and the vulnerable, which happen to overlap considerably with the interests of humanity as a whole.

The goal here is to empower the developing countries, and in particular the poorest among them, to effectively do their part in a proper planetary mobilization. Which is why the plan prominently features core finance provisions designed to accelerate emissions cuts around the world, even as it also increases funding for adaptation and disaster management in vulnerable nations.

Mohamed Adow, the director of Power Shift Africa, is one of the plan’s driving forces, and having worked with him for years, I can testify to the focus of his intention. The same focus is visible throughout this plan, which demands a spotlight on vulnerable nations’ “assessed needs rather than an arbitrary political pledge by rich countries”. The details follow from this approach, as do the asks, and though they’ll seem exorbitant if viewed from the perspective of, say, Washington DC, they are in fact extremely minimal. Indeed, they are explicitly framed as “the bare minimum”.

This plan, even if fully implemented, wouldn’t deliver the grand transformation needed to stabilize the climate system. But it would help a great deal, which is why The Least Developed Countries group, the Alliance of Small Island States and the African Group of Negotiators have all backed it.

But be clear. This plan does not capture the limits of the South’s aspirations. And as the next round of climate talks begin, southern negotiators will certainly step forward to go further. Some already have. In any case, the many kind words that “fair share accounting” receives in these few pages are a clear signs of an underlying vision that goes far beyond the bounds of realism-as-usual.

Still, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, or in this case with five.  Here they are:

  • “Cutting emissions: despite welcome recent progress, the sum total of climate policies in place across the world will not keep global warming within the limits that governments agreed in Paris; an acceleration that is consistent with the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature limit is urgently needed, led by those with the biggest responsibility and capacity
  • Adaptation: with climate impacts increasing, provisions to help the most vulnerable adapt, including through increased financial support, need to be strengthened
  • Loss and Damage: the consequences of the developed world’s historical failure to cut their emissions adequately are already resulting in losses and damage for the most vulnerable. Responsibilities have to be acknowledged and promised measures delivered
  • Finance: The promises made in Copenhagen in 2009 and again in the Paris Agreement are unequivocal and must be delivered: at least $100bn per year by 2020, up to 2024, with a concrete delivery plan, with at least half going to adaptation, with increased annual sums from 2025. The debt consequences of Covid-19 mean that action outside the UN climate process is also essential
  • Implementation: After several summits of stalling, governments must by COP26 finalize rules on transparency, carbon trading and common timeframes for accelerating action, in a way that safeguards development and nature.”

The Fair Shares NDC hits the Media

Well, the launch of the U.S. Fair Shares Nationally Determined Contribution went pretty well.  (Not the real one, though that launch was also pretty successful). The first major pickup was from Bill McKibben, who featured the FSNDC in his New Yorker climate column, here,  in this nice pithy paragraph. 

“I’ve written before about the important work of EcoEquity in figuring out the responsibility that different countries should bear for the climate crisis and how they should respond. Building on this work, a group of N.G.O.s last week called on the U.S. to cut emissions by a hundred and ninety-five per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. This can be achieved by cutting our own carbon output by seventy per cent, and providing technology and funding to developing countries to help them achieve the equivalent of the remaining hundred-and-twenty-five-per-cent reduction. Meanwhile, the Times reports that dozens of countries need debt relief because climate crises (and COVID-19) are decimating their budgets. Increasingly, according to Somini Sengupta, lenders such as the International Monetary Fund are studying proposals under which “rich countries and private creditors offer debt relief, so countries can use those funds to transition away from fossil fuels, adapt to the effects of climate change, or obtain financial reward for the natural assets they already protect, like forests and wetlands.”

Then, as we approached Earth Day and President Biden’s Climate Leaders Summit, things picked up. Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich published a nice piece called The U.S. Has a New Climate Goal. How Does It Stack Up Globally? which included this balanced segment, and a nice quote from Climate Equity Reference Project co-director Sivan Kartha:

“If every country were to meet its stated climate goals, America’s per capita emissions would decline and converge with China’s by 2030, the Rhodium Group estimated. But both countries’ per capita emissions would still be twice that of Europe’s and nearly four times that of India’s.

Partly for that reason, some environmentalists have argued that the United States should have picked an even more ambitious target for reducing emissions. Doing so would not only make up for decades of being by far the world’s largest emitter, they argue, but would also give lower-income countries like India more time to transition off fossil fuels. One recent report by a range of civil society groups urged the United States to commit to a 70 percent cut by 2030, along with vast new funding for clean-energy projects in the developing world.

“If you’re asking whether the U.S. target is fair and ambitious, the right yardstick isn’t what will pass muster with the Senate,” said Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute and a co-author of the report. “The question is what should the United States do given its capacity to act and its historical responsibility for causing the problem?”

That was great, but we had expected it. But then we discovered that Kate Aronoff, a staff writer at The New Republic whose new book on the climate crisis Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet–And How We Fight Back–can I say that it’s hot off the press?–immediately joined the short list of essential climate-political titles, had just featured the Fair Shares NDC in in the opinion section, with a fine piece called Biden Is All About Zero Emissions, but Who Do You Think Has Been Fueling Them?, wherein she embeds this para . . .

“But accounting for the United States’ outsize responsibility for the climate crisis requires much bolder action, according to a recent recommendation from several groups, including Friends of the Earth U.S. and ActionAid USA: “a reduction of at least 195 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions” compared with 2005 levels by 2030 — 70 percent cuts within U.S. borders and “the equivalent of a further 125 percent reduction” by providing support for emissions reductions abroad.”

. . . into a longer argument that centers the sprawling landscape of geopolitical, geoeconomic, and ideological challenges the are the subject of her book. I must read for sure.

The day ended, at least for me, with an invitation to speak on BBC TV, which I of course accepted, though I am a bit out of practice. You can watch it here.

Not too bad for one day

 

Rebooting a failed promise of climate finance

Remember Copenhagen? Where Hillary Clinton, on behalf of the “developed countries,” pledged $100 billion in annual climate finance? What followed, of course, was an almost perfect proof that rich world promises were not to be believed.

It’s a long and depressing story, not least because it can be explained by incompetence just as easily as by venality, but Timmons Roberts and a group of collaborators have just summarized it well, in an short, excellent, and entirely trustworthy piece in Nature Climate Change called Rebooting a failed promise of climate finance. It’s not even behind a paywall.

I only have one wee complaint. The concluding paragraph, the one that–as per the conventions of professional political commentary–makes helpful suggestions about the way forward, is a bit too measured for my taste. It reads as follows:

“The 2015 Paris Agreement specified that a new collective, quantified goal for climate finance is to be agreed prior to 2025, with US$100 billion per year as the minimum. Now is the time to begin that effort with ambition and accountability to build enduring trust and resilience. Future climate finance pledges and targets should be based on realistic assessments of developing countries’ needs. Then real plans must be built and implemented to meet those funding targets; for example, through innovative finance, like levies on international airline passengers and bunker fuels. To meet the promise of ‘adequate and predictable’ financing made back in Copenhagen, new global financing mechanisms have to be implemented, since annually decided ‘contributions’ from national treasuries are not delivering on the promise. First though, clear rules for what counts as climate finance need to be agreed.

My problem? Not that future climate finance pledges should be based on proper needs assessments. Or that we’re going to have to rely on “innovative finance” to meet those needs. Only that we should give up on demanding contributions from national treasuries–which are indeed “not delivering on the promise”–while we wait for an innovative finance breakthrough to show up.

It almost seems that Timmons et. al. actually expect a near-term breakthrough on that front. I for one will believe it when I see it. In the meanwhile, I’m going to continue to work to establish the fair shares frame. It seems to me that it can only help.

Caution from India on taking a “net Zero” pledge

The Indian Express recently featured a joint editorial by three of my favorite Indian analysts, Ambuj Sagar, Lavanya Rajamani, and Navroz Dubash, in which the three, all influential in their own right, team up to deliver a common message — India needs to mobilize, but both it and the world may be better off if it concentrates on its existing development first agenda rather than jumping on the “net zero” bandwagon.

I don’t entirely agree with this take. I would have preferred a much stronger emphasis on the emergency, more consideration of the need for rapidly scaled up international support, and more emphasis on adaptation and loss & damage finance. But “the three” have good reasons for their take, which you can imagine pretty easily if you read between the lines, and in particular if you recall the grim nature of the Modi regime.