Less global inequality can improve climate outcomes

By Narasimha Rao, Project Leader of the Decent Living Energy (DLE) Project, IIASA Energy Program

Is there a conflict between reducing global income inequality and combating climate change? This seems like an odd question, given that these challenges have a lot in common. Raising the living standard of the poor for example, makes them resilient to climate impacts; less inequality can mean more political mobilization to establish climate policies; and changes in social norms away from material accumulation can reduce inequality and emissions. Academics have however been curious about the following phenomenon: In many countries, a dollar spent at higher income levels is less energy intensive than at lower income levels (known as “income elasticity of energy”). That is, rich people – although they consume much more in total – spend additional income on services or can afford energy-efficient goods, while the new middle class buy energy-intensive goods, like appliances and cars.

Many imagine China as a template for this type of fast growth. If globally significant, this effect would imply that growth that is more equitable would also be more emissions-intensive, and that we would have to pay particular attention to ensuring that climate policies reach the rising middle class in developing countries. While several studies have examined this phenomenon in specific countries, no one has examined its global significance. We set out to do that.

Energy intensity (MJ per $) lower in a high-growth, low inequality world (green line, Gini=0.29) compared to a low-growth, high inequality world (blue line, Gini=0.45). Gini reflects between-country inequality only.

Our analysis suggests that the energy-increasing effect of lowering inequality is more of a distraction than a concern. We compared scenarios of equitable and inequitable income growth, both within and between countries, assuming the most extreme manifestation of the income elasticity. Within any country, given the slow pace at which inequality typically evolves even with the most extreme known income elasticity and reduction in country inequality, greenhouse gas emissions would increase by less than 8% over a couple of decades. However, when one considers a more equitable distribution of growth between countries, global emissions growth may decrease when compared to growth that occurs in industrialized countries. This is because poorer countries have more potential for technological advancements that reduce the energy intensity of growth than richer countries do. That is, more income growth in poorer countries provides more opportunity for efficiency improvements that influence the emissions of very large populations. Furthermore, China is a poor model for poor countries at large, many of which have relatively low energy intensities, even today.

Climate stabilization at the level aspired to by the Paris Climate Agreement requires that we (i.e. the world) decarbonize to zero annual emissions around 2050, which means that even developing countries have to make aggressive strides towards integrating climate goals into development. Nevertheless, there is no sufficient basis for considering that equitable growth, and by implication the poor’s energy intensity, is part of the problem. To the contrary, the potential for co-benefits from equitable growth for climate change are enormous, but unfortunately under-explored, particularly in quantitative studies. Research should focus on quantifying the role of changing social norms – less consumerism, political mobilization, and other social changes that are typically associated with lower inequality – on reducing greenhouse gases. ­

Reference:

Rao, ND, Min J. Less global inequality can improve climate outcomes. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. 2018;e513. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.513

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Conversations in corridors: Attending the World Science Forum 2017

By Nemi Vora, participant of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) 2017 and PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Was it worth the flight?” asked my fellow alumna of the YSSP Karen Umansky, at the end of our first day of attending the World Science Forum in Jordan. The total journey from the USA to Jordan had taken 20 hours, layovers included. She was well aware of my travel anxiety, fear of immigration officials (an Indian passport doesn’t always make things easy), and fear of traveling alone on a militarized Dead Sea road at night (you can see the west bank on the other side). I had spammed her every day about it.

The IIASA delegation at the World Science Forum © IIASA

I didn’t have an answer; the panels I attended did not focus on anything new. We were all aware of issues: digitization without destruction, women in science, support for emerging scientists, meeting the sustainable development goals, and so on. However, every conference has a different key to unlock its potential and Jan Marco Müller, head of the IIASA directorate office and another recipient of my daily email spam, informed me that it was not the panels, but the corridor conversations that mattered here.

I soon found out that it was not just the corridors, but even the brief conversations in shuttles where the conference happened. I met a program manager for the US National Science Foundation who told me about research work on the food-energy-water nexus that they funded for the Nile, an area similar to my thesis. I met a regional director of UNESCO and a science minister from Colombia, who together set up new Africa-Latin America project partnerships during the shuttle ride.

One important part of each conversation was the significance of the place I was in, something I had previously missed completely. The ability of this small country, surrounded by conflict zones on each side, to arrange for such a large gathering of this kind, bringing together opponents and allies alike, and to take a stand for enabling peace through science, was remarkable.

True, the issues were not new, but the context was much more specific to the needs of a conflict-ridden world. For instance, discussing how to provide access to digital resources such as open data for policymaking or scientific journals for all the countries, promoting the achievements of Arab women scientists and those of the other developing regions amidst cultural and economic hardships, and fostering innovation in emerging scholars in the developing world where lack of resources was part of academic life.

Jordan also showcased the recently established SESAME facility: the Middle East’s first international science research center, a joint venture of a group of middle eastern countries, otherwise engaged in political conflicts. IIASA was representing a unique position here: originally founded as the bridge between East-West scientific collaboration during the Cold War, it served as an example, along with the fledgling SESAME, that geo-political boundaries did not hinder science and that such projects could be successful. Despite political tensions in individual countries, and having a passport that would not allow you to visit your colleague’s country, you could still work side-by side—a feat that SESAME scientists achieve every day.

As YSSPers, our goal was to talk about the benefits of global mentorship and how that could be leveraged to address the uneven distribution of resources. All of us came from different backgrounds: there was An Ha Truong from Vietnam, an energy economist studying optimization of biomass for coal power plants, there was Karen, the social scientist from Israel, studying emerging neo-Nazism in Europe, and then there was me—representing the USA and India as an environmental engineer.

Our co-panelists from the Berkeley Global Science Institute, also of diverse backgrounds, were engaged in setting up labs across the world, providing resources and mentorship to graduate students. While we had a lively session discussing our personal experiences, it wasn’t what we had to say but the session questions that struck a chord with us. The presence of conflicts add another layer of complexity to the already murky path of academia: how do you keep young scholars motivated to stay in the lab and work in a country threatened by war? How do you compete in cutting-edge science research when resources are scarce? How do you engage in public-private partnerships when your work may be more theoretical than applied?

The YSSPers taking part in a panel © IIASA

We need to collaborate more, provide access to the data and codes we use to carry out reproducible research, attempt to publish in open access platforms whenever feasible, and support our fellow scientists irrespective of their location or positions. This way, we would inch closer to solving some of these issues. Six months ago at IIASA, the HRH Sumaya bint El Hassan, co-chair of the World Science Forum, had asked me, “How do you eat an elephant?” Being a vegetarian, I couldn’t imagine ever eating one and I very naively told her so. On my way back from Jordan, with another long journey ahead of me, I realized the significance of her words: you eat it little by little.

Follow Nemi on twitter: @NemiVora

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

 

Interview: Living in the age of adaptation

Adil Najam is the inaugural dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and former vice chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan. He talks to Science Communication Fellow Parul Tewari about his time as a participant of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) and the global challenge of adaptation to climate change.  

How has your experience as a YSSP fellow at IIASA impacted your career?
The most important thing my YSSP experience gave me was a real and deep appreciation for interdisciplinarity. The realization that the great challenges of our time lie at the intersection of multiple disciplines. And without a real respect for multiple disciplines we will simply not be able to act effectively on them.

Prof. Adil Najam speaking at the Deutsche Welle Building in Bonn, Germany in 2010 © Erich Habich I en.wikipedia

Recently at the 40th anniversary of the YSSP program you spoke about ‘The age of adaptation’. Globally there is still a lot more focus on mitigation. Why is this?
Living in the “Age of Adaption” does not mean that mitigation is no longer important. It is as, and more, important than ever. But now, we also have to contend with adaptation. Adaptation, after all, is the failure of mitigation. We got to the age of adaptation because we failed to mitigate enough or in time. The less we mitigate now and in the future, the more we will have to adapt, possibly at levels where adaptation may no longer even be possible. Adaption is nearly always more difficult than mitigation; and will ultimately be far more expensive. And at some level it could become impossible.

How do you think can adaptation be brought into the mainstream in environmental/climate change discourse?
Climate discussions are primarily held in the language of carbon. However, adaptation requires us to think outside “carbon management.” The “currency” of adaptation is multivaried: its disease, its poverty, its food, its ecosystems, and maybe most importantly, its water. In fact, I have argued that water is to adaptation, what carbon is to mitigation.
To honestly think about adaptation we will have to confront the fact that adaptation is fundamentally about development. This is unfamiliar—and sometimes uncomfortable—territory for many climate analysts. I do not believe that there is any way that we can honestly deal with the issue of climate adaptation without putting development, especially including issues of climate justice, squarely at the center of the climate debate.

COP 22 (Conference of Parties) was termed as the “COP of Action” where “financing” was one of the critical aspects of both mitigation and adaptation. However, there has not been much progress. Why is this?
Unfortunately, the climate negotiation exercise has become routine. While there are occasional moments of excitement, such as at Paris, the general negotiation process has become entirely predictable, even boring. We come together every year to repeat the same arguments to the same people and then arrive at the same conclusions. We make the same promises each year, knowing that we have little or no intention of keeping them. Maybe I am being too cynical. But I am convinced that if there is to be any ‘action,’ it will come from outside the COPs. From citizen action. From business innovation. From municipalities. And most importantly from future generations who are now condemned to live with the consequences of our decision not to act in time.

© Piyaset I Shutterstock

What is your greatest fear for our planet, in the near future, if we remain as indecisive in the climate negotiations as we are today?
My biggest fear is that we will—or maybe already have—become parochial in our approach to this global challenge. That by choosing not to act in time or at the scale needed, we have condemned some of the poorest communities in the world—the already marginalized and vulnerable—to pay for the sins of our climatic excess. The fear used to be that those who have contributed the least to the problem will end up facing the worst climatic impacts. That, unfortunately, is now the reality.

What message would you like to give to the current generation of YSSPers?
Be bold in the questions you ask and the answers you seek. Never allow yourself—or anyone else—to rein in your intellectual ambition. Now is the time to think big. Because the challenges we face are gigantic.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Interview: Disposable lives, globalization, and the future of sustainability

Shalini Randeria, a sociologist and social anthropologist focused on legal pluralism and global inequalities, is the Rector of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna and an IIASA Distinguished Visiting Fellow. On 9 March, she gave a keynote lecture in Vienna entitled, “Precarious livelihoods, disposable lives, and struggles for citizenship rights,” as part of the IIASA-Austrian Academy of Sciences public event, Human Capital, Geopolitical Complexities, and our Sustainable Future.

Q. Why do you say that globalization is full of contradictions?
A. We are living in paradoxical times. The global spread of democracy has gone hand in hand with the erosion of its substance. Decisions once made by national parliaments are now made by supranational institutions, reducing the say of citizens in public decision-making. As people feel disenfranchised, trust in our governments fades. Sometimes going to court seems to be the only way to make governments accountable to citizens. This development not only expands the power of the judiciary but also politicizes it.

What role does globalization play in the inequality between Global North and Global South?
Neo-liberal economic restructuring has increased inequalities between countries but also within each society. We are witness today to an unprecedented concentration of income and wealth, which is not an unforeseen consequence of economic globalization but the result of deliberate public policies. The global South, however, is no longer a geographical category. Greece is an example of European country dependent on international finance institutions in much the same way that once so-called developing countries were.

Shalini Randeria © IWM / Dejan Petrovic.

Shalini Randeria © IWM / Dejan Petrovic.

You say that economic and political processes render some lives disposable – what do you mean by that?
Take India for instance: since the country’s independence in 1947, every year some 500,000 people—mostly small farmers, agricultural workers, fishing and forest-dwelling communities —have been forcibly displaced to make room for gigantic infrastructure projects. They have become development refugees in their own country. These people are regarded as ‘dispensable’ by the state in the sense that their livelihoods are destroyed, their lives disrupted, and they are denied access to common property resources. These populations are the human waste that is sacrificed at the altar of an unsustainable model of incessant economic growth.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted last year, include aims to end poverty, ensure access to employment, energy, water, and reduce inequality, at the same time as preserving the environment. What challenges do you see for achieving these goals?
The SDGs will prove to be an important milestone, if they are implemented the world over. Some of these goals are in conflict with one another. Take the protection of biodiversity, for example, which is often constructed as an antagonistic relationship between society and nature In the new global regime of biodiversity consveration, nature is portrayed as self-regulating, as a pristine, uninhabited wilderness that is threatened due to the wasteful resource use by local populations. Thus access and traditional usufruct rights are curtailed, and indigenous knowledge is devalued and marginalized.  The (post)colonial transformation of landscapes into “environment,” “natural resources,” and “biodiversity” has enclosed the commons in most regions of the global South and often commercialized them.

The idea of the Global Commons as spaces and resources that all have access to and also have the responsibility to protect is a useful one in this context. The oceans are but one example of the global commons that include water, forests, or air, which are all being increasingly privatized. The Global Commons also include common resources developed by humans such as virtual data, knowledge, computer software, and medication..

What needs to be done by international institutions to make significant progress in achieving the SDGs?
Eliminating poverty will need an understanding of it that goes beyond a merely economic one. One will need to take into account possibilities of democratic participation, access to public goods and infrastructure, as well as civil rights and a restoration of a plurality of livelihoods. But these institutions also need to be reformed as they have a serious democracy deficit, be it the EU or the Bretton Woods institutions.  Unaccountability of international institutions and powerful corporations along with stark asymmetries of power between these and the nation-states characterizes the new architecture of global governance, which need to be remedied  urgently if we are to realize global justice.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Interview: Inequality is a lifelong story

Tarja Halonen was the 11th President of the Republic of Finland and Finland’s first female head of state from 2000 to 2012. She currently serves as the Co-Chair of the UN High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, and the Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders. She is also a member of the high-level reflection group, the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group.

"Being poor does not mean that you are stupid; it sometimes demands a lot of intelligence to survive if you are poor. It is very important to take these issues seriously and our primary focus should be the empowerment of people." - Tarja Halonen

“Being poor does not mean that you are stupid; it sometimes demands a lot of intelligence to survive if you are poor. It is very important to take these issues seriously and our primary focus should be the empowerment of people.” – Tarja Halonen at the 2014 Alpbach Forum

IIASA: How have you been involved in the formation of the Sustainable Development Goals? Why is this process important?
TH: I have been involved in this process since the development of the Millennium Development Goals, and I consider that it is very important that we continue to work for these principles after the implementation of the millennium goals has ended in 2015.

In spite of all of their weaknesses the Millennium Development Goals were important goals, informing the knowledge and expectations that we have regarding sustainable development and a global climate agreement or commitment. To me, the post-2015 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, are perhaps the most important guarantee for the future of the world.

What is different about the approach of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group?
We have said many times—and many world leaders agreed at Rio+20—that it is time to stop working in silos. We need a multidimensional approach, where academia, politicians, business, civil society, and also NGOs are involved. This is where the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group is so important. I think that this group is an effort to address that need, and I hope that by bringing together the various areas of society we can address the great social injustices in the world. It is not only the business of scientists what happens in the world. It is not just someone else’s problem: everyone needs to be involved in the process.

How do you hope to see the issues of gender inequality reflected in the group?
In 2012 I was co-chair of a report entitled “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing” for the UN Secretary General, as part of my role on the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability. While compiling this report we noticed that there are a lot of resources that are overused and which cause problems. However, what is underused is human capital.

There are three categories we should focus on: the poor, youth and women. Of course all of these groups are very important to include. But for women, inequality is a lifelong story that you cannot get rid of.

It is very important to take these issues seriously and implement measures to change the status quo. I have already tried in many ways, and of course the Council of Women World Leaders has already done a lot of work which I am very thankful for. I am also very proud of Michelle Bachelet, current President of Chile, and the first Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women, who has led work on the empowerment of women at all levels. We need to make an effort to strengthen gender and women’s rights as part of the post-2015 goals. There are many similar attempts to raise this issue but I hope this group can make it a stronger voice.

-Interview by Philippa Brooks, IIASA Communications Manager, during the 2014 European Forum Alpbach

Alpbach, Austria

Alpbach, Austria

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Poverty eradication and climate change: Is there a conflict?

By Narasimha D. Rao, IIASA Energy Program

Many people associate raising living standards in developing countries with increases in greenhouse gas emissions. But would improving access to basic needs—such as water supply and nutrition to poor households in Africa—have the same impact on climate change as increasing affluence—people moving to the suburbs, buying bigger homes, and buying cars?

New research that we published this week shows that in fact, it may take fewer emissions to raise the poor’s basic living standards than it does to grow affluence. If this is the case, then progressive development policies may well support climate mitigation. Our new study suggests that climate research needs to focus on how countries’ emissions growth relates to the services people are provide. This could change how we think about development, and influence how we approach the Paris climate negotiations in 2015­ – a milestone many view as the last chance for international cooperation to guide humanity onto a safe path of climate stabilization.

Usripur, India. Photo Credit: Rajashree Khalap

There are many reasons why researchers have stumbled when thinking about poverty eradication and climate change mitigation. First, poverty is itself a debated concept. Much of the development community has moved beyond thinking of poverty just as income. We now include measures of other deprivations for example food, health, and education. But metrics abound, many of which are hard to quantify and aggregate. Second, the climate research community has yet to catch up on this shift when linking growth to human-induced greenhouse gases.  Countries’ growth pathways in climate scenarios are still represented solely in terms of GDP, which doesn’t say much about how that wealth is distributed or access to basic living standards. Third, data on the multiple dimensions of poverty are hard to come by, particularly for poor countries where they are needed most.

In our new study, we used available data on well-recognized poverty indicators – adequate nourishment, water supply and sanitation and electricity access – to relate countries’ growth over time to these indicators and to emissions. We found that while countries’ GDP has grown largely in proportion to emissions, access to these basic needs has grown in the majority of developing countries without proportionate emissions increases. Furthermore, in a handful of countries (such as Costa Rica, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and others) over 90% of the population have access to these basic needs with total emissions of less than five tons of CO2 equivalent per capita, which is well below the world average of 6.3 tons per capita.

A new study shows that raising the poor's basic living standards could lead to fewer greenhouse gas emissions than similar gains in already affluent populations. (Photo Credit: Dave Wilson via Flickr)

Hyderabad, India. Photo Credit: Dave Wilson via Flickr

Much more research is needed before we can assess whether other countries can raise living standards with low carbon emissions growth. Indeed, increased energy access is a primary driver of greenhouse gas growth, and the energy needs of basic human development aren’t well understood, although we have begun to characterize economy-wide energy needs besides providing modern energy to homes. Countries with different fuel endowments and climate may require different energy and emissions to achieve the same progress in human development.

Understanding the climate impacts of poverty alleviation can be useful for international climate policy. One can identify opportunities and challenges for basic human development within the limited carbon space available if we are to keep global average temperature rise within 2-3 degrees C. Second, it can offer a way to differentiate mitigation efforts among developing countries by recognizing and quantifying emissions associated with basic needs. The lack of a successful agreement on other efforts-sharing regimes over the last twenty years gives cause to chart new directions.

References

Rao, ND, Riahi K, and Grubler A. 2014. Climate impacts of poverty eradication. Nature Climate Change. 4,749–751 doi:10.1038/nclimate2340

Rao, ND, P. Baer. 2012, Decent living emissions: a conceptual framework. Sustainability 4 (4), 656-681. doi:10.3390/su4040656

Rao, ND. 2013. International and intranational equity in burden-sharing agreements for climate change mitigation. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Diplomacy, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 129-146. doi:10.1007/s10784-013-9212-7

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.