Thursday, 20 June 2013

Is there hope for a green transformation?

By Hubert Schmitz

Washout summers. Flash floods. Snow in May. Droughts.’ Such climate chaos leads meteorologists and climate scientists to meet this week and discuss the UK’s strange weather in recent years. Continental Europe has similar problems. Only last week, some 36,000 Europeans have had to flee their flood-ruined homes. How many incidents of climate chaos are needed to trigger meaningful action rather than mere talk? It would be easy to fall into deep pessimism about the prospects for sustainability.

Some Western countries (Denmark, Germany) have adopted green policies but overall progress has been small. Most of Western Europe and North America is politically paralysed and/or financially bankrupt. So Western leadership in the green transformation seems unlikely. Do the rising powers (India, China, Brazil) offer more hope? They certainly have more financial room to manoeuvre and they have used their capacity to invest and strengthen their own green sectors. For several years China has been the world’s No. 1 investor in renewable energy and India has had the highest recent growth rate. But they have also invested heavily in new coal-fired power stations. Thus, in spite of their big green investments, the rising powers are responsible for most of the recent increases in carbon emissions. Of course, the Western powers are responsible for most of the sins of the past. This struggle between the historic and current responsibilities is at the heart of the deadlock in global negotiations to reduce emissions.

Raising levels of investment and advancing collective action for the green transformation remains difficult at all levels: global, national and local. Progress is held back partly because the units of analysis are mis-specified. The debate continues to pitch rising powers against old powers, developed against developing countries, public against private sector, and civil society against the financial sector. This is not helpful. Actors supporting (and opposing) the green transformation can be found in each of these categories. The analytical and practical challenge lies in identifying and forging alliances across these divides. Such focus on alliances offers the best hope we have to accelerate the green transformation within West and East and across the divide.

This may sound like wishful thinking but what is being suggested here is the opposite: to bring realpolitik into the green transformation debate. To understand this we need to ask who can be considered a member of a transformational alliance. It is tempting to let motivation count and opt for alliances of the like-minded. But this would be a limiting step to take. There is a range of actors that can support the green transformation but their motives for doing so can differ greatly: mitigating climate change, securing energy, building competitive industries, fostering green jobs. In other words, alliances can include actors whose priority is not environmental sustainability. This can be a game changer in the dynamics of the transformation.

You can get a glimpse of this game changer in both European and Asian examples. In Denmark, the experimentation with wind energy received substantial support from politicians and business leaders concerned with energy security – in the wake of various oil crises. Civic actors with environmental motivations played a role at the start and increased over time but they were never sufficient. Government and business actors motivated by the chance to build a globally competitive wind energy hub have played a big role. In China, such alliances were equally if not more relevant. China’s massive investment in renewable energy was not driven primarily by concerns with global climate change but by concerns to secure energy and ambitions to build new competitive green industries.

The relevance of alliances is confirmed by the research of Harrison and Kostka (2012: 5) on the local politics of climate change in China and India. ‘In both countries the ability to build and sustain coalitions is central to the effectiveness and sustainability of climate change policy. For various reasons, state strategies in China and India have focused on the need to bring different parties with otherwise divergent interests on board to build a coalition in favour of climate mitigation measures’. Such bundling of interests seems critical.

Not convinced? Watch this new space – which focuses on the Green Transformation. Researchers at IDS and Sussex University and their partners in Germany, China and India are conducting research on the role of transformative alliances. There is a lot to be done. What drives us forward is the promise of a new approach which brings both more analytical power and new insights for moving forward.