November 8, 2021The Intersectiongeopolitics

Decarbonisation will change geopolitics

The global balance of power will shift before the world can change its outdated political structure. Therein lies the problem.

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

India was perhaps the only big country at the recent Glasgow COP26 meeting whose commitments were entirely driven by environmental considerations, and which came at a substantial cost to its medium-term economic prospects. Other major players had upsides. The transition from fossil fuels to modern renewables, for instance, presents China with a massive economic opportunity given its dominance in solar, battery and nuclear power. Europe can protect its domestic industries from foreign competition by imposing green standards and tariffs. Given its advanced R&D eco-system, the United States is certain to derive economic benefit from the emerging global market for green technology.

While energy transition will certainly create opportunities for Indian firms and consumers, the fact is that fundamental challenge of raising the living standards of hundreds of millions of our people has become even more daunting. It is uncertain if high economic growth at the scale required to create the 20 million jobs every year that Indians need is even possible within the parameters of India’s carbon commitments.

Actually, the $100 billion per year promise was floated in Copenhagen in 2009 and might have been an inducement to get developing countries on the table. It came into effect in 2015. However, as Leslie Hook and Joanna S Kao report, even after padding it with loans and private finance, rich countries are far from meeting this goal.

Moreover, it is hard not to be sceptical about the rich countries’ promises to ease the decades of pain and sacrifice the rest of the world has to make.

The righteousness of the West’s most ardent climate advocates must be seen against their abject ongoing failure to make Covid-19 vaccines available to billions of people who require it today. The pandemic, like climate, is an indivisible, collective threat to humankind. So countries, societies and leaders who are effectively refusing to come to the aid of billions of real people in this generation can hardly be relied upon to help future generations. Talk of $1 trillion in climate reparations from rich countries must be taken with liberal pinches of organic salt, given that we are still waiting for them to part with the $500 billion ($100 billion per year) they promised at Paris six years ago.

Greene cites the backlash against globalisation to warn that the same could happen to decarbonisation.

New Delhi can neither rely on the rich countries keeping to their emission commitments nor on receiving compensation for sacrificing its growth opportunities. FT columnist Megan Greene warns that There are inevitable short-term economic costs that risk generating a backlash against efforts to fight climate change.” Rapid decarbonisation is likely to cause a supply-shock, raise prices and raise public debt. It will create winners and losers, and the latter could push back, as they have done against globalisation. Yet the pain that rich country populations will suffer is trifling in comparison to that in the developing world — where well-known growth paths are to be abandoned and unknown, risky routes embraced. Lacking power in the international system, governments of developing countries will be compelled to require sacrifices from people too weak to mount backlashes.

This is only partially a story of hypocrisy and self-serving righteousness of rich and powerful countries. If agreements like Paris and Glasgow are inadequate and unreliable, it is because the political structure of the world is not optimised to address solutions to humankind as a whole. Most of the 200-odd independent nation-states that exist today do so on the basis of national self-determination, the idea that people who share a lot of things in common and have their own homeland have the right to govern themselves. Whether or not people are better off under this dispensation is debatable. We have seen nation-states trample on the liberties of minorities and individuals. Their international conduct wilfully threatens the very existence of humanity. Addressing common global challenges was not even part of the design specifications of nation-states, which is why a collective front against a virus, or a holistic approach to tackling climate change is at best a touch-and-go.

The world should fight the pandemic as one. But it isn’t. Blame world order.

Our failure to adopt coherent global approaches to a growing number of important issues such as international terrorism, public health, environment, weapons of mass destruction, transnational technology platforms and cyberspace governance is in large part due to political structures. The best we can do in the current international system is to evolve a stable balance of power that creates an international order that permits global solutions to global problems. This long chain of hope, tenuous at best, is broken in many places today. Xi Jinping’s absence at Glasgow indicates that no serious effort is on to try and fix this.

Some working notes on re-engineering democracy

As unprecedented are the risks to human survival and flourishing today so are the opportunities for overcoming them. But we need to rethink political structures. Within countries, mechanisms of representative democracy and bureaucratic adminstration need overhauling. Across countries, there is a case for large, thin continental federations like the Indian republic and the European Union. And what do we do with the United Nations?

There are many more The Intersection columns here

Let us hope that the outcome of COP26 will achieve its goal of reducing carbon emissions. But in doing so, it will exacerbate other geopolitical and economic problems. Imagine a world where a different country replaces the Gulf as the hub of the energy world. Fuel we will get from the Sun and the air. But the supply of technology and raw materials to convert them to electricity will be dominated by China. Such a world is a decade away and will arrive well before we update our political structures. So, in whose image will the 21st century be constructed?

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