Forget Lightbulbs: Why States’ Self Interest is the key to fighting Climate Change

An interesting article appeared in a recent edition of The Daily Mail (9 February). A criticism of Barack Obama’s post-presidency trip to the British Virgin Islands with Richard Branson, it included this note on global warming: ‘And on the question of his much-vaunted concern with climate change, how did Obama travel to Necker Island…Private jet, of course.’ The implication is clear: it is hypocrisy to go on holiday in a private jet while professing to care about the environment. This is fallacious, because it displays a fundamental ignorance about where the fight against climate change is now, and where it is going.

Those who pay attention to such things will have noticed a change in emphasis with regard to the environment over the last circa ten years. We are no longer advised that we can save penguins by using energy saving lightbulbs, recycling, and not leaving the TV on standby. These actions may be personally good for our own finances – notice that solar panels are now marketed primarily as a money-saving tool – but they will not save the world. Why? Because not only is a lightbulb insignificant, but an average person’s life is entirely insignificant from an environmental point of view. An infamous 2009 Guardian report claimed that the fifteen biggest container ships in the world create more pollution than every car in the world. The exact numbers have been debated, but the message is clear: the pollution that matters is caused by corporations, giant ships, and giant factories, pumping millions of tonnes of toxins into the air. It is stopping this, not sharing car journeys, that will save the world.

Miroslav Petrasko

Image courtesy of Miroslav Petrasko, © 2010, some rights reserved.

That is why the focus has changed to state-level solutions, and bypassed ordinary people altogether, hence the excitement around the ground-breaking 2015 Paris Climate Change agreement, the first ever agreement to have global scope and legally binding conditions. Similarly, the decision of the US and China – responsible for 40 per cent of all emissions – to ratify this treaty was seen as a huge step, following on from their 2014 emissions-cutting agreement. This is so important because only governments can stop those ships sailing, or regulate them to make them more efficient (as some shipping companies are now doing). This work that was done by President Obama is ground-breaking, historic, and one reason why criticising him for using a plane is nonsensical.

As we know, things are different now in America. President Trump may ditch the Paris Agreement, based on his undetermined beliefs and comment that climate change is a Chinese hoax. The Republican Party, which receives huge donations from the oil and gas industry, has been passionately against emissions reductions. However, even in this worst-case scenario – which is far from certain – the state-level solutions that are happening across the world are a sign of positive progress, and offer a model (and hope) for the future.

Costa Rica, for example, famously used no fossil fuel to produce electricity for 250 days of 2016. This is impressive, even if they still use a lot of oil in their cars (as reported in The Guardian). Up to 95 per cent of Uruguay’s electricity needs are met by renewable energy, mostly a series of massive wind farms. What’s the secret?

Economics, really. According to the head of Climate Policy in Uruguay: ‘renewables is just a financial business. The construction and maintenance costs are low, so as long as you give investors a secure environment, it is a very attractive.’ In other words: if you allow it to, the market will solve the problem. Fossil fuels will run out, and are in many places becoming much more difficult to find and extract. Producing renewable energy can be cheap and effective if governments keep regulation and taxes low. Companies then have an incentive to invest. Crucially, once they have invested, they have a financial incentive to innovate and spend on research and development in order to beat their competitors. The technology therefore becomes more efficient, cheaper, and, consequently, more profitable. The crucial point is this: human beings are self-interested. Let’s stop relying on altruism to solve one of the biggest problems we’ve ever faced, and instead use to our advantage one of the single most effective motivators of human behaviour throughout history: money.

This is hard work. Scotland has a lot of wind farms, enough to produce energy in one day in August 2016 equivalent to Scotland’s total energy usage for that day. The key word here is equivalent. The country didn’t run on wind power: it ran on fossil fuels, but produced enough wind power that it could have run on wind. Because this energy cannot be stored, it was lost. This is the issue. It’s not enough for governments to build windfarms, or allow companies to produce them. They need to actually be used, and that requires political change, and a political motivation to change.

This change can also be motivated by self-interest. China is not a country that has traditionally cared too much about what its people think. But massive protests against rampant air pollution that is thought to kill up to a million Chinese people a year are driving the Chinese interest in renewable technologies. Their leaders have declared a ‘war on pollution’ and are searching for more sustainable methods of growing their economy. The smog their factories create damages the people and their productivity, limiting the growth that the factories and their massive production are supposed to represent. Propelled by a self-interest that President Trump would do well to heed, China has in the last few years become a key player in international climate negotiations, often leading by example.

It is the same thinking that has propelled India to become one of the largest global investors in solar power, including building the world’s largest solar power plant. In time, this self-interest will propel change in other countries too, including the UK, where air pollution in London is growing.

Regardless of what President Trump does, the global community seems ready to step up its efforts to fight climate change, because it is in their interest to do so. When they do, they would do well to appeal to companies’ self-interests too. A union between the private and the public sector, to invest and innovate, is what is necessary for those Paris targets to be reached, and for those who believe in climate change to be able to get on a plane without being called a hypocrite.