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Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Nobel Peace Prize winning IPCC, and one of the contributors to Other Worlds are Possible

On the eve of the Copenhagen climate summit we seem to be poised between the possibility of new directions for the world, and meek capitulation to environmental upheaval. Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says we have just months to take large-scale action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He calls on developing countries not to try to copy western consumer lifestyles.

In an interview to be broadcast on the BBC, he adds that growth and rising GDP are an “extremely harmful” way to measure human progress. Pachauri’s determination to think about fresh solutions, from championing less meat-eating to challenging bad economics, is a lesson to commentators who affect weariness and distaste at yet another reminder of the extreme consequences of our lifestyles.

It’s a call to rise above national and sectoral interests. But it’s not easy. Point scoring in global talks often becomes more important to negotiators than preserving a planet fit for civilisation. Worse still, as the problem becomes ever clearer, a collective cultural “Am I bovvered?” seems to rise from the most materially comfortable and least likely to suffer.

But are people really saying that it’s just not worth fighting for the climatic conditions that make life both enjoyable and possible? If somebody threatened your child, what would you do? Only the sociopathic or comatose would sit by and let the people they love be threatened without acting. Yet inadequate climate action is the equivalent of inviting threats to our offspring. And in front of us there are clear but diminishing opportunities that really could solve the problem. We’re still living in the grip of a consumption explosion. Our material consumption is rising at the same time that nature’s ability to provide resources and absorb waste is weakening. Human overuse seems to be undermining available biocapacity.

The latest data on humanity’s global ecological footprint makes worrying reading. The UK’s footprint makes our level of consumption even less sustainable: it would take at least 3.4 planets for everyone to live at our level. Globally we are using resources and pumping out carbon emissions at a rate 44% faster than the biosphere can take. It now takes just under 18 months for the earth to produce the ecological services humanity uses in one year.

As Pachauri writes in the foreword to a new report, Other Worlds Are Possible: “It is crucial that we engage in fresh ways of thinking about development and sustainability.” Too often rich countries excuse their own inaction by pointing at the rising consumption of poor countries – as if that is the true problem. It’s convenient, but ignores what many other voices from the global south are saying.

Writing in the same report, the leading Indian economist Professor Jayati Ghosh takes a different view: “The presumptions and aspirations of what constitutes a civilised life will have to be modified. The model popularised by ‘the American Dream’ is perhaps the most dangerous in this context, with its emphasis on suburban residential communities far from places of work, market and entertainment and linked only through private motorised transport.” The Chilean economist Professor Manfred Max-Neef is similarly dissenting: ‘Solutions imply new models that, above all else, begin to accept the limits of the carrying capacity of the earth: moving from efficiency to sufficiency and wellbeing.”

Some of those solutions are right under our noses, according to the energy researchers Mark Z Jacobson and Mark A Delucchi. Writing in the November edition of Scientific American, they describe how, by 2030, the world could shift to a virtually zero carbon energy system. Their model is based only on existing technology that can already be applied on a large scale, and excludes nuclear power and fossil fuels. It calls for, globally, the building of 3.8m large wind turbines (wind being 25 times more carbon efficient than nuclear power), 90,000 solar plants and a combination of geothermal, tidal and rooftop solar-PV installations globally.

They admit the scheme is bold, but it follows Al Gore’s challenge for the US to abandon fossil fuel power in the next decade. In terms of the physical challenge of producing so much renewable generating capacity, they point out that the world already produces 73m cars and light trucks every year.

People forget, perhaps, the effort it took to get us hooked on oil in the first place. As Jacobson and Delucchi point out, starting in 1956 the US interstate highway system managed to build 47,000 miles of highway in just over three decades, “changing commerce and society”.

84 months and counting

Bookmark and ShareProfessor Wangari Maathai is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, founder of the Green Belt Movement and author of The Challenge for Africa.

Members of the Green Belt Movement plant trees on an eroding hillside in Kenya.

In Other Worlds are Possible, the latest report from the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, the the coalition asks how the global economy should be reshaped to enable human development in a carbon constrained future. A post-carbon society and addressing climate change mean much more than constraining carbon usage. While Africa is rich in resources, her people are poor; to counter this poverty, Africa needs to develop. For development in Africa to be successful, we need to ensure the right conditions in society that facilitate respect, equity and sustainability.

Current economic models create wealth at the expense of the environment and so we need to rethink how we develop. The current model from the industrialised countries which develops through the use of fossil fuels as the driving source of energy cannot be sustained. We must find a balance to improving our quality of life while not undermining the environment, and therefore the capacity of our species and other forms of life to continue. This can be controlled by investing in renewable sources of energy low in carbon – solar, wind, hydropower; sources of energy that will help us to develop without sacrificing the environment.

I wrote The Challenge for Africa to encourage Africans and others to think beyond the current economic model which is dependent on resources from the rest of the planet. The fact that humanity’s current use of resources is outstripping the planet’s ecological capacity should give all of us a reason to pause. It is simply not sustainable for the rest of the world to mine, log, drill, build, dam, drain and pave in a rush to achieve the standards of living of the industrialised countries, which themselves depend on massive resource extraction in the global South. In so doing, they could encourage the growth of sustainable industries that provide good employment in well-managed cities and towns – not crowded filthy slums with virtually no infrastructure that blot too many African cities and too many African lives. Africans, like citizens in other regions of the world, can also work to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and to harness renewable energy sources to industrialise in a way that provides work for the millions of Africans migrating to cities, and allows some of those currently practising subsistence agriculture to move off the land.

The challenges facing agricultural communities throughout Kenya are mirrored throughout Africa and many of the poor countries in the global South. In these regions, concern for environmental issues is treated as a luxury. But it is not: protecting and restoring ecosystems and slowing or reversing climate change are matters of life and death. The equation is simple: whatever we do, we have an impact on the environment; if we destroy it, we will undermine our own ways of life and ultimately destroy ourselves. This is why the environment needs to be at the centre of domestic and international policy and practice. If it is not, we don’t stand a chance of alleviating poverty in any significant way. Nor will we create for the African people a continent where security and progress can be realised.
For the many reasons that have been articulated, there is a real need to develop a funding mechanism that will not only help industrialised and developed countries to address climate change, but also developing ones.

As major polluters, the industrialised countries have a responsibility to deal with climate change at home, but also to assist Africa and the rest of the developing world to address climate change. They are in a position to share their technical know-how to reduce vulnerability and address adaptive capacities. Mechanisms ought to be established – quickly – to raise steady and reliable funds for the prime victims of the climate crisis, who will be poor and rural, very young, and, more often than not, female. And many of them will be African.

One way to ensure that African countries are more self-reliant and competitive is for industrialised nations to transfer technology – with a priority on green technologies – to those nations that are technologically less advanced. Industrialised countries should accept the moral duty to assist Africa and other poor regions to find alternative and renewable sources of energy – such as biomass, wind, hydropower, and solar – and enable the global south to participate in the carbon market so Africa can develop industries based on renewable energy sources. But African countries themselves should also invest in science and technology. Global investors have ploughed billions into new wind, solar, and other alternative energy initiatives. But those funds were almost wholly concentrated in the industrialised countries, along with some in China, India, and Brazil. Almost none of this investment is coming to Africa, despite the continent’s vast energy poverty and abundant sun and wind. Africa’s challenge lies in making herself a relevant beneficiary of these resources.

This is an edited extract from Wangari Maathai’s essay in Other Worlds are Possible, the sixth report from the Working Group on Climate Change and Development.

Bookmark and ShareProfessor Herman E. Daly is Ecological Economist at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland and Author of Steady-State Economics

Climate change, important as it is, is nevertheless a symptom of a deeper malady, namely our fixation on unlimited growth of the economy as the solution to nearly all problems. Apply an anodyne to climate and, if growth continues, something else will soon burst through limits of past adaptation and finitude, thereby becoming the new crisis on which to focus our worries.

The fact that the contributors to Other Worlds are Possible realise this makes this report a serious study. The fact that they seek qualitative development that is not dependent on quantitative growth makes it a hopeful study. It is a valuable collection of the specific and the general, of the grass roots details and the macroeconomic big picture regarding climate change and economic development.

The reader is told up front that, ‘This report represents the work and views of a range of individuals and civil society groups. It is a contribution to debate on what other worlds are possible. Not all the views and policies discussed are necessarily held by all the groups and individuals’. Although I did not find any contradictions among the various contributions, they differ greatly in approach and perspective—mainly between top-down and bottom-up modes of thought. Some people like to start with a big picture. They are impatient with concrete details until they can fit them into or deduce them from a framework of meaning consistent with first principles. Others are impatient with a big picture unless they first have a lot of concrete details and examples that inductively suggest a larger pattern. I confess that I belong to the first type, but that is more of a bias than a virtue. Both approaches are necessary, and are present in this collection, but the bottom-up predominates, at least in number of pages.

My advice to the top-down types is to first read Manfred Max-Neef’s fine big-picture essay. Then fit in the inspiring examples of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, Thailand’s self sufficiency, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, the Happy Earthworm Project, the Happy Planet Index, etc. More inductive types should save Max-Neef for last. I do not mean to characterize Max-Neef as a top-down thinker since he has spent much of his life doing grass roots, ‘barefoot’ economics. But in this volume’s division of labour his is the big-picture essay.

To have packed so much information, inspiration, and analysis into less than 100 pages of clear prose leaves the reader grateful to the authors, the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, and nef.

This is the foreward to Other Worlds are Possible, a new report on climate change and development published today, which features contributions from a range of developing world economists and activists, including R.K. Pachauri, Wangari Maathai and Manfred Max-Neef.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.