Who Pays to Save Us


By Koh En Min ǀ 11th March 2016

A boy collecting plastic in a river in Jakarta, Indonesia
Source: Jurnasyanto Sukarno—epa/Corbis

2015 was the hottest year recorded since 1880. Not only has the temperature been increasing every year, it has been increasing at a faster pace.

In December 2015, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, more than 190 countries agreed to set the goal of limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

The world is now already halfway to that limit. Earth’s average surface temperature has risen 1°C since the late 19th century, a change driven mostly by increased human-made emissions into the atmosphere.

Environmental threats not only impact the economy, they also threaten our way of life. They have a great impact in the long term on the availability of resources, the price of energy, the valuation of companies, the ecosystem, the weather, global sea levels and our food security.

As the weather warms, we see more occurrences of extreme weather such as drought and flooding. Agricultural crops tend to speed up their development, producing less grains in the process.

The extreme drought in Syria from 2006 to 2009, along with other factors, including misguided agricultural and water-use policies, led to crop failures that drove urban migration of as many as 1.5 million people. This added to the social pressures that eventually snowballed into the Syrian civil uprising in March 2011.

The oceans are also under the threat of degradation. A recent report by Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows that if we continue to produce plastic at projected rates and fail to properly dispose them, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

The annual damage of plastic to marine ecosystems is at least $13 billion and the estimated cost of ocean plastic to tourism, fishing and shipping industries in Asia-Pacific alone is $1.3 billion.

Every indicator stresses that we should act now, when the costs are still more reasonable and the task more manageable.

Studies estimate that the cost of mitigating the environmental damage is between 1 to 3 percent of global GDP annually. It is not an impossible economic burden for developed countries that usually grow at 2.5% annually and for developing countries that grow at a higher rate.

By 2030, the combined cost of climate change and air pollution could rise to 3.2% of global GDP, with least developed countries forecast to suffer losses up to 11% of their GDP.

One of the main reasons for the failure of the 2009 Climate Convention Conference in Copenhagen was the issue of carbon debt. Developed countries sought developing countries to reduce emissions, while developing countries used the historical emissions of developed countries, their carbon debt, as a reason for inaction.

Perhaps there could be a mutual debt cancellation of developed countries’ carbon debt with developing countries’ monetary debt, leaving behind the dispute about historical responsibility.

Carbon trading was the policy instrument of the UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol. If a country’s or a company’s emissions are lower than its quota, it can sell its surplus. If it exceeds its limits, it will have to buy additional quota on the market or cut its production.

Governments can regulate according to the desired outcome. Business can do what it does best – innovate and create – to help save our planet.

More than a dozen companies in the US have pledged to invest more than $140 billion in efforts to cut carbon emissions. Siemens, the global energy giant, even claimed that it can make a profit by reducing its carbon emissions as the money saved would eventually pay off the investments outlay and beyond.

Toyota, the world’s best-selling automaker, estimates that it would be selling almost no petrol or diesel car by 2050.

As pollution concerns heighten and the automotive industry struggle to meet stringent emissions regulations, automakers contend to identify the next dominant technology that will power cars. Toyota is betting on hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles. Nissan is betting on electric vehicles. Volkswagen is focusing more on plug-in hybrids.

Renewable energy use is growing faster than initially expected. Back in 2000, worldwide wind generated power capacity was projected to reach 30 gigawatts by 2010. In 2015, that goal was exceeded by 15 times. In 2002, solar energy market was projected to grow 1 gigawatt per year by 2010. In 2015, that goal was exceeded by 58 times.

At the rate that we are progressing with technology, we are capable of overcoming the climate crisis. However, the decision to act influences how and how much economic growth we pursue.

Economic growth comes at the expense of natural resources. Economic activities not only consume non-renewable resources, they also degrade the ecosystem.

One recourse is to slow growth (Thomas Malthus). Another is to innovate within existing context, with the premise that growth has no natural limits as the capacity for technological innovation is boundless (Robert Solow).

These two concepts are fundamentally different and it is difficult for either company or government to choose a direction when presented with both choices.

Innovation is a longer-term strategy as new technologies take time to develop. If a resource is rapidly depleting with low potential of immediate substitute, this is not the strategy to pursue. In such a situation, citizens, companies, and governments all need to move towards the Malthusian direction.

For example, commercial whaling was relentless in the 20th century and by the early 70s only a few hundred blue whales remained.

In 1975, conservation groups of average citizens and social radicals formed. The words “Save the Whales” began to appear on bumper stickers, signs and petitions. After years of political and social pressure, an international moratorium on commercial whaling was adopted in 1982.

Such collective action works where individuals feel that they are acting as part of a strongly committed community which reciprocates and assures their actions. Consumers cannot solve climate change. Only citizens can.

A citizen has an identity for both being and doing. A citizen has rights, and also responsibilities. A consumer merely feeds on goods and services.

Getting involved in community efforts to reduce waste, buying a more fuel efficient car, avoiding sudden acceleration and stops when driving, installing a more efficient refrigerator, buying products with less packaging, opting for reusable products over disposables, are some small but effective choices that contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Even the food we eat plays a part. Producing a unit of beef emits about 4 times as much greenhouse gases as a unit of pork or chicken; about 13 times as much as a unit of dairy product; and 30 times a unit of fruit and vegetables.

The Dalai Lama points out, “By exploiting its resources, we are in the process of undermining the very ground of our survival. All around we see signs of destruction caused by human action and the degradation of nature. So protection and conservation of the Earth are questions not of morality or ethnics, but of survival.”

Today, the whales we are trying to save are us.

This write-up is for informational purpose only. It may contain inputs from other sources, but represents only the author’s views and opinions. It is not an offer or solicitation for any service or product. It should not be relied upon, used or construed as recommendation or advice. This report has been prepared in good faith. No representation is made as to the accuracy of the information it contains, nor any commitment to update it.