Climate change and rigid policies

Mahmoud Mohieldin
Wednesday 21 Apr 2021

The world must confront the challenges of climate change through appropriate and flexible policies and not jargon-ridden recommendations

Amid the current global challenges, at the top of which is the Covid-19 pandemic and its repercussions, climate change is a major priority. There is no doubt that the alarm bells are now ringing louder than ever, due to the current threats to the environment, whether the land, the seas or the Earth as a whole.  

The subject is the focus of a comprehensive report put together by Sir Partha Dasgupta, Frank Ramsey professor emeritus of economics at the University of Cambridge in the UK. The Dasgupta Review was launched in February by the UK Crown Prince Charles and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

It summarises the dangers to the environment in four main points:

- Despite industrial and technological advances, the world has become more dependent on nature as one of the most important available resources;

- The management of depleted and renewable natural resources is worsening due to the increasing demands made on nature;

- The continuous violation of nature exposes current and future generations to great risks, rendering epidemics such as the coronavirus pandemic just the tip of a huge iceberg;

- The problem is rooted in two failures: the failure of markets to put an appropriate price on our natural resources and the bias to invest in physical capital at the expense of the investment required to preserve environmental capital; and the failure of state institutions to control and manage the unrestrained spending, ranging between $4 and $6 trillion annually, that stimulates the destruction of the environment.

According to the Dasgupta Review, the solution is to amend approaches to measuring the achievements of economic development in order to incorporate in measures of wealth all assets, including the natural, physical and financial assets of society. This will require a new system of national accounting of income and output, as well as changes in financial, social and economic policies and institutions.

The review identifies fields of private and public investment. Sustainable investment covers the development of assets according to financial considerations, such as profits, coupled with comprehensive positive impacts. 

Green investment is part of such sustainable investment and is concentrated on nature. It includes instruments such as green bonds, and equity investment funds in environmental projects. A neglected dimension of such green investments is direct investment in natural capital in order to protect water resources, forests and coastal areas, for example. 

Should such an investment approach be successful, it will achieve a moderation in the demand for environmental and natural resources commensurate with their ability to meet such demands, taking us safely to the shores of sustainability.

The review should be commended for the efforts that have been made with regard to its substantive content, and evidence and documented scientific citations. It will prove effective as part of the preparations for the next UN Conference on Climate Change (COP26), which is scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November, 2021.

However, in drafting sustainability policies, it is necessary to clarify the objectives of a trend that has become prevalent in the recommendations presented to different countries, regardless of variations in their incomes and their stages of development. 

To some people, the concept of sustainability is limited to dealing with climate change, according to the 2015 Paris Agreement. They think that countries are required to encourage public and private investments in areas compatible with climate change or to mitigate its severity and achieve sustainability. Such ideas are dangerous for development, especially in emerging markets and developing economies.

In the context of our legitimate desire to address climate change, it should not be forgotten that it is only one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) approved by world leaders at a special UN summit in September 2015. It should also not be forgotten that the desired sustainability cannot be achieved if the first SDG, which is the eradication of poverty, is ignored, especially after the number of people suffering from extreme poverty has increased for the first time since 1998 by more than 100 million people due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Can we neglect the pursuit of equality in incomes and opportunities (SDG 10), especially after the increase in inequality since the 1980s and the resulting rise in social discontent and political tensions?

The bitter experience of the Covid-19 pandemic has led us to see first-hand the effects of deteriorating healthcare (SDG 3), but have we learned anything from this? What are we to say to those who have suffered education poverty as a result of the pandemic, joining those millions who already lacked quality education (SDG 4) (estimated at 53 per cent of children in low and middle income countries)

The nobility of the objectives of protecting the climate and the environment, for the reasons we have stated, makes it imperative to put the preservation of the environment in the right operational framework, which, aided with political support, will respond to the aspirations of the public. 

This should be part of a comprehensive approach to the 2030 Agenda, which deals in an integrated and interdependent manner with the achievement of human development and inclusive economic growth for all within a framework of governance and international participation. The effective implementation of this integrated framework should not be selective or partial.

In a comment published by the UK Financial Times by the present author on an article in the newspaper by its respected chief economic commentator Martin Wolf on the Dasgupta Review, I warned against the dangers of creating a two-track system. This would involve a fast track towards achieving the goals of combating climate change and a second, slower track for the remaining SDGs, including wasting the advantages that come from integrating the SDGs and the unity of their financial and implementation framework.

A recent report by the Inter-American Development Bank, the majority member countries depend on the extractive industries, reminds us of the importance of formulating balanced and flexible policies that can help to set the rules for a well-managed exit from polluting activities. Such policies necessitate the efficient management of the transition process towards an economy that supports the priorities of environmental protection and reducing harmful emissions to the climate through the coordination between energy policies, production, growth, employment and the efficient implementation of social protection. 

It is imperative that we abandon the rigidity of certain policies in a fast-changing world that is afflicted by the repercussions of the pandemic and is shrouded in uncertainty. There is no way of effectively confronting these challenges except by adopting flexible policies that prioritise public interests over rigid recommendations.

An Arabic version of this article appeared on Wednesday in Asharq Al-Awsat.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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