12/04/2013 - 07:02

Time to move beyond baby steps

Sociologists have observed since the 1970s that people's values shift from the material to the post-material as societies become prosperous. That is, when people begin to believe that their economic and physical security is guaranteed, they devote greater attention to things that would have been considered luxuries before, such as autonomy and self-expression. The same process has helped produce developed-world environmental movements. These movements, which may have begun with local concerns about air and water quality, now include global issues such as climate change, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity.

In developing countries, on the other hand, environmental activism is often the product of poverty instead of affluence. The struggle that Chico Mendes led to conserve Brazil's rain forests, the Chipko movement in the Himalayas to save forests and protect soil and water resources, and the Penan people's efforts to prevent logging in Malaysia are examples of how poor people in rural areas have fought to protect their livelihoods. But in recent years, post-material environmentalism and environmentalism-of-the poor have begun to converge in some developing countries. In nations such as India and Kenya, educated middle-class people who are motivated toward environmentally responsible behavior have come together with the poor to address sustainability issues.

The greatest environmental challenge facing the world today is climate change. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, economic growth has been powered by fossil fuels—but from extraction to processing to transportation to end use, fossil fuels produce carbon emissions that the world can't afford much longer. It is clear that energy systems must become more sustainable. Future energy systems should be built around—in addition to energy efficiency—greatly expanded use of clean, renewable energy technologies. National energy policies, and the changes to markets that these policies imply, are central to achieving such a shift.

In reorganizing energy systems, the developing world faces a quandary different from that which faces industrialized nations. Energy and economic growth are tightly coupled, and this presents problems for countries where development levels remain low. Developing countries must simultaneously guarantee access to the energy that is necessary for economic development, manage transitions to low-carbon energy systems, and help the most vulnerable deal with the effects of climate change. This, essentially, is the well-known "energy trilemma" of energy security, environmental sustainability, and social equity. Addressing each element of the "trilemma" is imperative, but addressing all of them successfully is very complicated because the three are interconnected.

Over the coming decades, fast-developing nations are likely to account for an ever-increasing share of global carbon emissions—particularly China, India, and Brazil. But in the poorest countries, the biggest challenge continues to be energy access itself. Even the world's biggest carbon emitters haven't yet fully incorporated climate change into their energy policies—so it should come as no surprise that, in the poorest countries, transformation of energy systems is usually not even a fringe consideration.

Still, if developing countries are to progress economically and provide social equity to their citizens, they will sooner or later have to embrace a new kind of thinking—an attitude according to which climate mitigation, sustainable energy systems, and economic development proceed hand in hand. Some developing countries have already decided that building greener economies is an attainable goal.

China, for instance, in the five-year plan covering the period 2011 to 2015, identifies clean-energy industries and related technologies as "pillar industries" (along with information technology and biotechnology). The Chinese government is reported to be spending more than $1.7 billion on these industries and technologies over the five years, with this investment representing a market "push" toward green energy, and efficiency measures representing a market "pull." But the green-economy dimension of climate mitigation is not exclusively a Chinese idea—similar policy framings are seen in, for example, Thailand and my own nation of Malaysia.

The journey toward sustainable energy systems is under way, but nations have taken only baby steps so far. The pace could be accelerated if existing sustainable projects were scaled up and if regulations better encouraged market forces. Also, it is important for governments to encourage short-term interventions that can demonstrate to publics the advantages in creating sustainable energy systems—in Ghana, for example, goals for renewable energy generation have been paired with the goal of providing universal electricity access by 2020. This sort of trust-building is crucial. During the financial and economic crisis of the last few years, attention for global environmental problems flagged among governments, businesses, and publics. The window of time in which green energy investment might pay off for the climate may be shrinking—and if it closes, the implications would be extremely serious.