Consumer pressure for ecological transition is forcing businesses into conversion.
Global warming is one of the major risks of the 21st century. The rise in the planet’s temperature, now estimated at between 3 and 4.5 degrees by 2100, could turn whole regions into deserts, raise sea levels, increase the acidity of the oceans, and cause between 5% and 16% of our biodiversity to disappear. The giant urban conurbations where most of the world’s 11.5 billion people will be living will become unbearable and regularly subject to natural disasters. The number of climate refugees will skyrocket.
The risk is an immediate one. Since 1995, average world temperature has increased by 0.4 of a degree and sea levels have risen by 8 centimeters. The increasing examples of extreme climate conditions and their growing intensity have caused damage estimated at 1,100 billion dollars in the USA since 1980. In 2016, the number of climate refugees reached 23.5 million.
It has to be said that the euphoria following the Paris Agreement, signed by 195 nations on 12th December 2015 at the end of COP21, has largely evaporated.
The aim was to limit the increase in world temperature to 2 degrees and, if possible, to 1.5 degrees by 2100, compared to its preindustrial level.
However, after a three-year standstill, carbon emissions increased by 2% in 2016, which implies a 1.5 degree rise by 2050 and 3.5 degrees by 2100.
To cap it all, on 1st June last, Donald Trump announced that the USA was withdrawing from the Paris Agreement – the USA being, after China, the second highest polluter in the world, and producing 14% of emissions.
Instead of triggering a chain reaction, this decision has remained an isolated example and, instead, has spurred leaders and citizens to action. But national contributions have been patchy and the financing of the Green Fund designed to finance ecological transition has been heavily compromised by the absence of the USA. And yet, the battle against global warming is not lost, although it means a radical change of method and pace. Ecological transition requires about 20,000 billion dollars of investment by 2030, over 60% of which concerns emerging nations, notably to restrict the use of coal, whose consumption continues to rise by 5% every year, and even more than this in China and India. This financial burden cannot be borne by the countries themselves, which are highly indebted (85% of GDP worldwide and 120% of GDP for developed countries).
Nations have mainly taken action by means of the classic tools: regulation and taxation.
Doubts must be cast on this action, for results have been poor. In the future, there have to be four main objectives on the part of both government authorities and multilateral institutions – notably the IMF and the World Bank: the discontinuance of grants for the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels; support for research; the setting-up of environmentally-based taxation counterbalanced by a reduction in labor taxes and charges; the gradual setting-up of a world carbon market using the twenty or so existing systems which cover about 12% of emissions.
Far from sabotaging the Paris Agreement, Donald Trump’s show of strength has in fact speeded up the way in which governments and non-governmental players are mobilizing.
The 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party established protection of the environment as a priority in China’s transformation of its economic model. China intends to take the lead in renewable energy and electric vehicles and reduce the role of coal. In the USA, 2,500 local authorities and institutions have taken on a commitment to reduce emissions by 26% to 28% on American soil by 2025.
The fastest and most decisive change, however, is coming from players on the economic and social fronts. Under consumer pressure for ecological transition, businesses are being forced into conversion, as in the case of the automobile industry after Dieselgate. Sustainable development is no longer just a search for cheap spiritual enrichment; it is a vital precondition for production and sales. With the help of the digital revolution, clean technology is making great leaps forward in the key sectors of transport, agriculture and construction, which account for 28%, 20% and 19% of emissions respectively. At the same time, sovereign funds – and, above all, banks and investment funds – are turning away from fossil fuels, carefully monitoring companies guilty of pollution, and investing massively in green technology.
The move to ecological transition is well under way. This can serve as a testing-ground for the international community in the way global risks are dealt with in the 21st century and for nations who are redesigning their instruments of policy. The two key tools in the fight against global warming are not taxes and norms, but market forces and education.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 18th December 2017)